LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar retires after five decades in law enforcement
Published 3:18 pm Friday, February 3, 2023
After 28 years, you get to know people.
It’s probably fair to say that LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar has felt a little bit like a celebrity over the last week. It’s not that people wouldn’t normally stop and talk — of course they would — it’s that when a man who has led the police department for so long decides to retire, everyone wants to know what’s next.
Especially a man who has been renowned for his police work not only locally but also in the state of Georgia, across the United States and even around the world.
That’s how a typical Tuesday lunch at Your Pie downtown ends up in a conversation with everyone who joins the line.
“I’ve got over 1500 contacts in my phone, and I can reach a doctor and a plumber on the weekend, I’m not going anywhere,” joked Dekmar to friends, who happen to also be waiting to make their pizza order.
Soon, Dekmar finds himself in conversation with a couple of guys who work for UPS, who he’s gotten to know after being on the receiving end of so many deliveries.
When he gets to the front of the line to pay, he quietly tells the cashier that he’s going to pay for their food.
A few minutes later, they lean their head out the door and say, “Thanks chief!”
Dekmar waves, then minutes later casually finds himself in a couple more conversations when he leaves the restaurant.
It’s one of the joys of being in a small town, like LaGrange — getting to know everyone — and it’s something he’s excelled at during his nearly three decades as chief. Friday was his final day as LaGrange police chief, ending a run that started in 1995.
Dekmar grew up in Oregon and got his first taste of police work while in a local teen explorer program.
After graduating high school, he went into the Air Force, where he was stationed two years in Cheyenne, Wyoming and two years in England as a law enforcement specialist.
He finished his military service in 1977 during the Misery Index, where there were double digits unemployment, double-digit interest rates and double-digit inflation.
“The one place that was popping was the Rocky Mountain region, particularly Wyoming,” Dekmar said.
He was able to get a job at the prosecutor’s office in Douglas, Wyoming for eight years.
At that point, he got interested in becoming a police chief, but Wyoming doesn’t have many large cities. His wife, Carmen, told him she wanted to go somewhere where it didn’t snow nine months out of the year.
He called a friend he went to the national academy with and got a job in Macon, Georgia as a police officer. He was soon promoted to detective and then captain. In 1991, he became the police chief in Morrow, a city South of Atlanta. He stayed in Morrow for four years, and then moved to LaGrange where he’s served as police chief since 1995.
“Tom Hall was the city manager and had been the city manager in Morrow,” Dekmar said of how he got connected with LaGrange.
As far as his western roots go, Dekmar was happy to trade in heavy jackets for the warmer weather of Georgia. Now, he’s stuck around for 28 years.
“We are Southerners by choice now,” he said. “We love the west, but we love the South much more.”
In his introductory story with The LaGrange Daily News on May 13, 1995, Dekmar’s philosophy was compared to the popular Nike slogan, “Just do it.”
“See what the problem is and do a fair job of analyzing it,” he was quoted as saying back then. “But my God, after you’re done studying it, do something about it.”
FLAME OF EXCELLENCE
On Thursday night, Dekmar was honored at a banquet for his law enforcement career. The city of LaGrange gave him the Flame of Excellence award, becoming the eighth person in LaGrange’s history to get the award.
The award goes to exceptional individuals who bravely light the way for others
When it was his time to speak, Dekmar quoted former Gov. Zell Miller.
“If you see a turtle on the fence post, you know, he didn’t get there by himself,” Dekmar said. “And when I look around this room, what I see are those folks that have created the opportunities for me to be not only successful in my career, but more importantly be able to leave things perhaps a little better than we found them. That is not done alone.”
After a career full of earned honors, the awards and accolades kept rolling in for Dekmar at Thursday night’s retirement ceremony. So did the jokes.
All in good fun, he was called “Lou-gle” — a reference to the internet search engine — while another speaker said he needed a bracelet that said “WWLD,” meaning what would Lou do?
Natalie Ammons, who serves as the Public and Governmental Affairs Deputy Director for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, spoke as the chapter president of The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. Dekmar has been a member of NOBLE since 2009.
“You get it,” Ammons said to Dekmar. “He has been lightyears ahead of things we are just now hearing that are being implemented. They are so lucky to have you here.”
Next was Congressman Drew Ferguson, who also spoke of Dekmar on the House floor earlier this week. Ferguson called Dekmar one of the best listeners he’s ever met.
“It has been a real honor to represent someone like you in Congress,” Ferguson said. “Chief Dekmar has always worked very smartly, worked very hard and has been very honest in his dealings.”
Paul Cell, spoke on behalf of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, where Dekmar previously served as president.
“I’ve never met anybody in my 42 years in law enforcement that has more heart, more integrity, more caring for the communities served in the profession that he served, and who has left a more indelible mark on this profession than you Lou,” Cell said.
In 2017, Dekmar and the city of LaGrange received national attention for acknowledging and apologizing for the brutal killing of a Black teen 76 years before. Austin Callaway had been arrested for allegedly assaulting a White woman in 1940. He was taken into police custody, but a mob of armed White men reportedly took Callaway from his jail cell and shot him several times and left him to die.
Dekmar was quoted in 2017 as saying that law enforcement had failed Callaway and for that he was “profoundly sorry.”
“It shouldn’t have happened,” he said then. “I sincerely regret the role law enforcement played in Austin Callaway’s death, both through our action and our inaction.”
The apology was covered by media outlets from around the world.
KEEPING IT LOCAL
Throughout his career, Dekmar traveled the world and represented large policing organizations. He has introduced presidents, led training for the Israeli National Police Force and made national headlines for a shooting to incapacitate policy in 2021 — just to name a few things.
“This is a man who’s been on the front page of The New York Times, who’s been on the CBS Nightly News, who has introduced President Trump, as part of the Police Association has been invited to the White House by President Biden, President Obama and President Trump,” said former LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton.
However, Thornton said no matter where he was, or who he’d been around, Dekmar kept LaGrange his focus as a “humble servant.”
“When something happened in LaGrange, Georgia, he cared about it,” Thornton said. “When something happened in our community, when there was an injured person, when there was an officer in need, when there was a community organization that needed support, he was there, and he was the first to volunteer.”
Thornton specifically mentioned starting the warming center, noting that in most communities a nonprofit or a group of churches would find a way to make something like that a reality. However, in LaGrange, it was Dekmar who was credited with making it happen.
“In LaGrange, it was the police chief that put that together,” Thornton said. “No matter how big his name was, and what a lasting legacy that we’ve all celebrated tonight, he never lost sight of keeping the main thing the main thing, which is protecting and serving the people of LaGrange.”
The longtime chief will be the first person to tell you how different LaGrange is than many other cities around the country.
As protests waged following George Floyd’s death in Minnesota and countless other law enforcement situations around the nation, LaGrange had very little backlash, very few protests. Dekmar noted that in his speech Thursday night at his retirement banquet.
“We had folks from different areas come in and try to protest, and we facilitated that. But our local community activists and community leaders would reach out to me and say, ‘Lou, we’re not sure what they’re here for. We don’t know what they want, but we don’t have an issue with you right now, so we’re not participating,’” Dekmar said. “We may not always agree, but we are always willing to talk to each other. We’re always willing to listen. And if there’s a way that we can change what we do that affects the lives of people that we serve, we certainly work to do that.”
Dekmar said when something happens in LaGrange, the LPD’s leadership is always trying to learn from it. They want to identify any missteps, so that they don’t happen at the LPD.
“A smart guy learns from his mistakes. A wise guy learns from the mistakes of others. When we see things happening around the country, we almost beat each other to email the article to ask ‘OK, if this happened here, what we would we have done? Do we have policy? Do we have training? Do we have accountability? Do we have supervision? Are we looking at our outcomes?”
Through his leadership with the IACP and his role as a former president of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, Dekmar has many connections in the world of policing.
Stacey Cotton, the police chief in Covington, Georgia, said when the Tyre Nichols’ incident recently occurred in Memphis, Dekmar picked up the phone and called Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis. Nichols had been pulled over for reckless driving. He fled on foot and video from the incident shows he was beaten by police. He died several days later.
“The chief in Memphis is a very close friend of Lou’s, and he’s one of her mentors,” Cotton said Thursday at the retirement ceremony.
“I’ve heard so many people say how well she’s handled that. It’s because this man right here has instilled that in her and so many others. As a matter of fact, he called last week and checked on her. I was there when he called to check on her. That’s how much he cares. So, his impact is not just in the city or this county. It’s not just in this state. It’s not even just in this country. It’s around the world and that’s a rare, rare thing.”
Dekmar said the law enforcement profession is different because when a bad outcome occurs around the country, some people believe it reflects on all police officers. He said in those instances he’s always reminded his staff that in those moments, the bad decisions of others does not reflect on the work they are doing.
“When our folks see that, their reaction is just like everybody else,” he said, speaking generally of these types of incidents. “They think, what kind of load do we have to tote because of this?”
He said in 2020 when protests went on around the country, he regularly reminded his officers that LaGrange was not being impacted. Instead, he said the community embraced the police department.
“I had to remind my folks that while they are throwing rocks and bottles at folks around the country, they are throwing calories at us,” he said. “They are bringing us meals, bringing food by.”
Dekmar said he’s proud to have a staff that is always wanting to learn so they can better serve the people of LaGrange.
For a newly retired person who spent 50 years in one profession, you’d expect there to be a culture shock when the alarm clock doesn’t go off the first few days. It’s a relief most retirees share.
A night owl by trade — and demand — Dekmar said his schedule probably won’t be altered that much.
Typically, he wakes up around 9 a.m. and works until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., enjoying the times when the office is quieter in the late afternoons. Then, he stays up, sometimes until 1 or 2 a.m. reading while handling police work if an incident occurs overnight.
“I will get calls or pages and most of those shut down after 1 or 2 in the morning,” Dekmar said.
As for why there won’t be much of a schedule change, he said he has enough interests that he expects he’ll stay just as busy.
“My life is not just my job here. Family, friends, teaching … I have a lot of different opportunities,” Dekmar said.
He said he’s very fortunate because he has a significant “depth of leadership” at the division level, at the unit level, at the squad level. He noted that there are 22 officers between the rank of sergeant and police chief at the LPD and 17 have master’s degrees, while two others are seeking master’s degrees.
He said the city of LaGrange deserves a lot of credit for creating an environment where people want to work for the police department.
“The city is committed to personal development, ensuring folks have opportunities to engage not only in the community but also engage professionally through associations and different areas of interest that they can pursue that’s related to the job,” he said. “I have folks that teach, I have folks that are trainers, I have folks that are assessors. Each time they go out and do something, they bring one of two things back — this is a great idea and we need to do it or I need to go make sure we aren’t doing this. Both of those are valuable lessons.”
Dekmar has seemingly always had the LPD at the forefront of change.
The city was the first in the United States to require body cams, doing so in 2009. The LPD had mandatory video recording even before that, going back to 1997. Mandatory mental health training started in 2004.
“Anybody who watched Rodney King should’ve picked up that video was important,” Dekmar said. “None of this is tough stuff. It’s just being aware.”
City Manager Meg Kelsey said thanks to Dekmar, LaGrange was always leading the effort on positive changes such as body cameras.
“Now you’re just reading in the news about how important body cams are, especially in light of some really bad things that have happened, so now more departments are going to body cams nationally,” Kelsey said. “We’ve had body cams forever.”
In 28 years as police chief, the LPD hasn’t had a fatal police shooting. In fact, there hasn’t been an officer seriously injured.
The national homicide clearance rate is a little above 50%. Since Dekmar started as LaGrange’s police chief, the city has cleared approximately 85% of its homicides.
“You don’t clear homicides unless people talk to you,” Dekmar said. “And people don’t talk to you unless they have confidence in you.”
He said it’s all about treating people the right way.
“Today’s victim is tomorrow’s suspect is the day after’s witness,” he said. “And if you treat those folks poorly in any of those encounters, you are going to miss opportunities to leverage your relationship.”
When asked what he’s most proud of, Dekmar points to many things, but one is that the LPD has been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies since 1999.
“One of Dekmar’s first moves was getting the police department accredited,” Kelsey said. “We think that’s hugely important.”
Dekmar said he’d been thinking about retirement since last summer. He sent two of his captains to new chief school — Mike Pheil and Dale Strickland — just so the city would have strong internal candidates if and when he did decide to hang it up.
But then Thornton left in November and council members Jim Arrington and Willie Edmondson resigned to run for mayor. Longtime council member LeGree McCamey died in January 2022.
There was a lot of change, and Dekmar started to think more and more that the time might be right to move on.
“In November, I told Meg that it would probably be sooner rather than later,” he said.
After deciding over the holidays, he formally announced his retirement in January, saying he wanted to time it so he wouldn’t feel like a “lame duck” chief. He said all of the change wasn’t the only reason. Understandably, after five decades in policing, the time to retire was coming soon regardless.
“A new council deserves to have their own team, and how much am I prepared to change, if it requires any change?” he said. “It just feels like the right time.”