Colonel James Kirkwood served on the Memphis police force for 31+ years and as pastor at Ambassadors for Christ Fellowship Church for 21 years. He is now the Executive Director of the Memphis Christian Pastors Network. He offers a unique perspective as a former police officer who worked with the community to effect great change in Memphis. He shares his experiences on how to reach true reform, and believes it starts with the community (police, clergy, leaders and citizens) taking ownership of whatever problem is going on. He knows that true reformation will take place when the community and police working together is the reform that needs to take place.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Why caring about people is the first step.
- How to come together around a table and resolve issues.
- What the police need to do.
- Why candid conversations and good leadership are crucial.
Read the transcript of the podcast below.
Karin Conlee: 00:11 Welcome to R for R conversations that educate and elevate. I’m Karin Conlee, the Executive Director of Race for Reconciliation and I am just thrilled to have with me, Colonel James Kirkwood as our guest today. Thank you so much for joining me.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 00:30 Hey, I’m happy to be here.
Karin Conlee: 00:31 Well, and I should say for those who may not be familiar with you, you bring such a gift to this conversation. You worked for the Memphis police department for over 31 years. Retired there as a Colonel. You have served as a pastor at Ambassadors for Christ Fellowship Church for 21 years, and then somewhere in your next life, you I think retired from both of those and now serve as the executive director for the Memphis Christian Pastors Network. And so, you just bring a host of experience and wisdom that I’m excited to share with our audience. And I should ask you, do you prefer to be called Colonel or pastor or what do you prefer?
Colonel Kirkwood…: 01:23 I don’t have a preference. You can call me James. I don’t have a preference.
Karin Conlee: 01:33 Well, you are a gift to the city of Memphis and as an organization, Race for Reconciliation, we will launch our first event in the city of Memphis. Our heart is for this city, but our heart is also to take this message across the country. And so, as I thought about who I wanted to be able to have a conversation with, you’re really one of the first people that came to my mind, as 2020 came into being it brought a lot of different pains together, but what I’d love to do before we just jump in is for people to just get a little bit of a sense of who you are and your journey. And so, you spent 31 years in such an incredible profession as law enforcement. Tell us a little bit about how you decided that that was going to be your profession.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 02:34 Now that I’ve gotten older, I think the profession chose me. I think God chose me. I didn’t just choose it. What happened was when I was a young boy, I saw a police officer. We called him Dirty Slim in the neighborhood. That was his nickname because he was dirty. And he was beating this young man. I was riding morning and he was beating this young man up and he covered him in mud and I’m a little boy watching this. And he picked a young man up and handcuffed him and was walking him down the corridor to the car. And it was like, something just spoke in my spirit. All right, I’m this little boy and I looked up and said, I want to be a policeman when I grow up and I’m going to work in my neighborhood and I’m a treat us the way we supposed to be treated.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 03:36 And so it was like that incident dropped who I was a call to be, what I was going to do to help serve my community. And I never lost it. I never got away from it. And even when I tried to get away from it, it would always come back. And Hey I joined the Police Department and I was just as happy had a wonderful career of serving my community. It was absolutely beautiful. It wasn’t real work for me. It was really me doing something that was natural. And that was making sure that the community in which I served, whatever community it was, the community that I served was treated right and served by the police department, you know, in a manner that was respectful, in a manner of partnership whereas the community knew we belong to you, all right. We belong to you and we’re here to serve you. And so that was a cute thing, but that’s how it all started when I was a little bitty boy and it blossomed and it grew.
Karin Conlee: 04:52 Wow. Well, that is an important, I think, backdrop to this conversation. And so, I appreciate you sharing that, and I did not know that part of your journey. You know, Colonel as we look at 2020, the topic of police brutality has resurfaced again, and you offer a unique perspective from a little boy having that experience to then serving with many, you know, brothers in the service, for those 31 years in a city that is very diverse. Would you mind sharing from your experience, what is your perspective on the types of reforms and the things that need to happen within our police departments right now?
Colonel Kirkwood…: 05:50 I think throughout my career at the police department, and throughout the nation when it comes to police reform or criminal justice reform, you see the pendulum swinging towards strong law enforcement being toward community partnerships. And I think what really works best is for community and police to work together. That’s the reform that needs to take place. You hear the saying community policing, community partnership with policing. Real community policing is everybody within that community taking ownership of whatever problem there is going on. And you sit at the table and you strategize on how we will combat this problem so that we all can win. That’s real reform, that’s how it should be. Police departments training as well as probably our mission statements need to change, whereas we become guardians of the community and not seen as soldiers, not seen as it is us against them.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 07:11 Because the majority of the community is pro police. I think that’s black community, white community, Hispanic community. They are pro police. All right, and the majority of police officers are pro community, right. The majority now I should say, they join the police department to make a difference, right? Because it gives you a platform that you can really serve community. You really can get in where the need is and make a difference. And yes, like in all professional there are some bad apples that come in. In the church, we call it wolves in sheep’s clothing. And so, there are individuals, wolves who take on the badge, that take on the blue uniform and the community, as well as the police department has to work together to weed those individuals out.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 08:09 So there’s situations that took place like what I grew up seeing, or what we saw in the Floyd incident don’t occur, you know. But that’s real reform when you begin to change the mind set and I think Karin, I was a pastor as well as a Colonel right, Police Officer and they used to always say that I was a more pastor than police. That’s what Director Walters would always say, he’s more pastor than police. But I always solved the word, with the pastorship, I always saw who I am as a believer transferring into the work of police. And so, when see this work of policing, I saw it as an opportunity to really, as a Christian man to really show kindness, to show love for neighbor, to show service, all right. To really become a servant to people. And when you that man said, you know, cause, you know, in Christ, we always talk about let this man that was also in Christ Jesus be also in you, which means, the way you thinking ain’t right. So, you need to elevate your thinking. So, look how he thinks, how he says it, how he does it and transform your mind to [inaudible 00:09:46] to see that.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 09:47 Well, there has to be some transforming in the mind of the police work. Whereas we begin to see and care about the people to the point that we really bring them to the table and together collectively we talk about our strategies and how we can resolve issues and reduce crime that takes place. That’s real reform, and that’s the kind of reform that needs to go on.
Karin Conlee: 10:22 You know, as we’re talking, it’s amazing how many times really complex, big overwhelming topics can really just, you can kind of just part through all of that and get back to humanity. And it’s, it’s treating people the way that you want to be treated. It’s what you, it’s what you decided as to why you went into that line of work, as you wanted to bring honor and dignity to others, the way that you wanted honor and dignity. So, you have sat in a very unique place as someone who has faith in a profession that is, I’m assuming you were not the norm. There are not a lot of pastor police combos in most police departments.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 11:15 It’s quite a few, it’s quite a few. Oh man, it’s quite listen. Go ahead and finish your question. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Karin Conlee: 11:23 No, but I just love, it’s so easy for people as Monday morning quarterbacks or somebody who’s not in the trenches to have all these strong opinions about who people are and what they do and what the answer should be and that’s why I love talking to you because, you know, I would love to just hear some of your experience of the wins that you did have in your work and how that community action worked together. And then also, okay, here’s the reality. Where are specifically maybe a majority white culture making some assumptions and needs to be educated in this realm. So maybe first things first, tell us a little bit of some of the wins, how you saw what you’re talking about be successful, so that, that might be something that can be replicated.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 12:22 Now for me, every precinct I’ve ever worked on as a Colonel, we reduced crime and how we reduced crime was because I was a guy who was very, very pro community policing. And so. from Hickory Hill, [inaudible 12:54] to Raines Station to [inaudible 12:55] station, I pulled in community to help solve issues. In doing that crime would go down, for instance Raines Station crime was up. Pulled in pastors, pulled in community leaders, when I say community leaders, I mean, the leaders that you don’t normally think would be working with police you know, the community activists who sometimes, you would say some people say they are negative against police. I didn’t take them to be negative against police. I took them as saying something about us that we needed to listen to.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 13:39 And so I brought them to the table so that we can work it. In doing so we will begin to reduce crime because we will sit at the table and we will talk about we have a problem with kids fighting after school. How do we solve this? So, I need churches. Okay, what can you do to help alleviate this problem? I need businesses, you know, what can you do to help alleviate this problem? And then our community people, what can you all do to help alleviate the problem? And here’s what the police can do to help alleviate the problem.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 14:18 Now, all of us working on this year, we should start seeing the children fighting after school the incidents beginning to decline. And what happened was they will begin to decline. When it came to burglary, okay Pastors, what can you do to address this burglary problem, business community and so on, putting everybody there. But also, at the table because of juvenile crime, we had Amy [inaudible 00:14:51] and we partnered with Amy [inaudible 00:14:53] at the Attorney General’s office [inaudible 00:14:58] station to come up with a juvenile program where as we had a juvenile probation officer at the precinct. And we devised churches, I need you to come up with programs so that these kids who were getting in trouble. That we get right, when we bring them to Mr. McLeary, who’s our juvenile probation officer, community probation officer. He can direct these kids to you instead of the juvenile system and doing so, our juvenile crime began to decline and the incident, the children did not repeat because now those children was given a church community. You know, an extended family to begin to work with.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 15:48 They begin to get more attention, but not only did the child get attention, the family got attention because the family had to be at the table. And also, not just the child, but the mother and father, sisters, and brothers, whoever they have to be at the tables, with the table regarding their child and it worked like that. I mean, and so it goes on and on. But let me tell you this here, within the police department, let me get this that you would be shocked at the pastors and the preachers that are police officers. I was shocked when I got on, I thought I was going to be the only one, only to find out that it was a lot of us, all right.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 16:34 And really to our amazement, you really shouldn’t be shocked because they go to our churches, all right. You know, these police officers are going to churches and things. They are deacons, they are teachers. They are Sunday school teachers. You could never get past the blue uniform to really see the individual that’s wearing this uniform, all right. That’s an individual who has children, family, community connections, community ties, and believable or not, a relationship with God, that’s going on in that person trying to do this work. And so, but my successes came from that and it was absolutely–. Man, I would partner with anybody, it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 17:28 Karin, I have to be honest with you, I’ve partnered with some gang members, all right. We was on a back-to-school drive and the churches was doing back to school drives, and hey, I reached out to the gangs and said, wait a minute, these your kids? I need y’all to do a back-to-school drive and I want it to be very, very special. I said you all doing haircuts. I need you all to do the whole gamut. They blew me away. They blew me away. They did it. It was absolutely awesome. The did it at this club. I went over there, I just laughed. I spent about an hour over there. It was packed with kids. They got backpacks, school supplies, the guys were doing haircuts. They were cooking. They were doing everything. And all of us celebrated, all right. All of us celebrated and I gave everybody certificates. I took my pictures with them because they had did something positive, all right for the community, because I asked them. I asked them to join in and that’s community you know, and our children belong to all of us and all of us should have a part in the success of those kids.
Karin Conlee: 18:42 Well, I’ve got so many questions just from all that you’ve just said. One of them you know, you talk about Race Reconciliation, we exist knowing that racism is not just a Christian problem, it’s a human problem, and we want to solve it for all people. But the faith that you are walking in, and as you said, okay, you’re right. It does make sense. People who want to make a difference in their community, what a sacrificial career. And I remember my dad was in the military and it scared me because I knew his life was on the line a lot. And I remember praying like, Lord, I don’t want to marry a pilot or a police officer or a fireman because I just don’t think I have the stomach for it. And you know, I think about that now, and I think it’s what you said that behind that uniform, are fathers and brothers and sisters, and, you know, as unfortunately the police have taken such a negative taint in the media, what would you say to just help us understand that they are our advocates? What is your perspective having walked in that uniform for so long as you hear just the criticism that’s out there right now?
Colonel Kirkwood…: 20:14 Having walked in it and being an African-American living in America, I have to be honest and that is some of what we hear that we call negative is a lot of truth and sometimes truth hurt. And sometimes there are things about us as a police department we don’t know, we don’t accept, but we don’t want to deal with, all right. And the ugly about our profession that we can have some officers who take advantage of the power that has been given to them. We don’t want to talk about it openly, but believe it or not, we’ll say things behind the scene, we will even fire individuals, suspend them you know, discipline them. We’ll do things, but we don’t readily just say, Oh, no, there’s some bad apples here and we got to get rid of them, all right. This is the problem. This thing occurs.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 21:27 So for me when I would hear the ugly, I will sit back and say, they’re ain’t lying. That’s true and he’s one of them. And he’s one of them. She’s one of them, all right. That is true. That’s just absolute truth. They did not handle the case right. They did not respond to the people in the right manner whatsoever. They did not [inaudible 00:22:02] them in the manner in which they did, in the manner which they should have. That’s real, that’s real. And you just have to own it. You just have to own, if you’re going to do something about it, even individually, you have to own your ugly. You have to own it. And so, the police department, we are here today again, because police departments across our nation have not done a good job of owning their ugly.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 22:31 And what we do is we will, incidents will occur and we will have conversation, but then like trying to die, you know, I’m doing real good. I’m doing real good. Look out, Ooh, look how motivated I’m doing real good. But then after a period of time, you began to snack again on Lays potato chips. I ain’t talking about no [inaudible 00:23:08], I’m talking about me, all right. You pass the Oreo cookies and you knew you shouldn’t have went down that aisle, but you went down that aisle and by God, man you know, they look so good. And so, you begin to go back to doing what you was doing. So, in church world, you never truly repented. You were sorry that it occurred, but you really didn’t go deep enough to make the changes for it to never occur again.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 23:48 So we are back here, all right and there are people experiencing what I experienced as a little boy. Seeing these images by police, not good police, all right, bad police. Because let’s be realistic, I have arrested people. I have wrestled with people. And they were people that needed to be wrestled with, needed to be thrown back, cause you had to get the arrest. And the community was like, man, good job, man. He needs to go, all right. You know what the community doesn’t like is when we exercise power. When you hear the community say, you were executioner, you were judge, jury and execution, out there on the scene and that wasn’t right. So, we are here today again because we hadn’t addressed it.
Karin Conlee: 24:50 Maybe one last question to wrap up this time together. Knowing what you know, knowing the experiences that you have had, when you think about if you had unlimited resources and you had just strategic connections with leaders, what would you say are the top one or two things that you would want to have happen in cities right now in America to solve the division and to solve the racism that we are experiencing?
Colonel Kirkwood…: 25:25 Ooh Oh man.
Karin Conlee: 25:37 I threw that one at you, didn’t I?
Colonel Kirkwood…: 25:37 You threw that one at me, man. To have candid conversations, to first have a real dialogue on America. America is a great nation. That is the truth, but America also had some great ugly that we tend to overlook. And I think if America is to be the great nation, a better nation, to be truly what it says it desires and want to be, it has to come to terms with this ugly, from the beginning. And so, I would work hard in helping us to own our story, not run from it, but own it so that we can do better. All things work together for the good, the ugly and the bad, all right? And so, if we ought to be a nation that loves God, called according to his purpose, we need to not be afraid of our pasts, our ugly. Own it and realize that it can work together for our good, it can turn out good. It can be good. We can be better because of it and then because I truly believe that leadership, everything starts with leadership. Everything starts with leadership. Good leadership will be a blessing to anybody. All right, and you know, I love leadership. I teach it at the Police Academy still today. Two-Step Ethics and Leadership class.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 27:59 I think when I go forward, I don’t see much training on leadership. And so, I would really work hard to make sure that leadership begin to be taught early in the life of our children. I think we keep our children children too long and we don’t teach them to really understand leadership and understand what it is. And it is really servant hood, you know, and I need you to understand that God has placed us all in this world to be servants one to another, to look out for one another, to take care of one another. That we should do and no decision that I make, if it benefits me only, is a good decision, right? It has to benefit all of us. That’s the whole concept of the family, it has to benefit all of us. And so, when we sacrifice to send you to college, all right, it has to benefit all of us or it has to benefit the family, it cannot just benefit you. So, if you grow up in going back to your way, like the rest of us, that sacrifice forward, then something has just went wrong in the equation. It has to be about all of us.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 29:27 And then the third thing is to, I’m a firm believer of this and that is some kind of way we have to transform our thinking from individualistic to us being a part. No man is an island, but every man is a part of the main. And I think in America, we are so individualistic that we don’t see, you know even, you know, everybody wants to be their own selves. I want to be me. Let me be me. Well, you cannot be you without me, you know, you need me to in order to be you all right. We need each other. And I think some kind of way, we need to transform our educational system, when we begin ourselves as a part of one another. That’s the problem when division comes. It’s individual; in some kind of way, white America, black America, while we are white American, black, American, Hispanic American, Asian American; while all of these entities are there, we have to become a part of each other for our nation to work, for our cities to work.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 30:58 We have to be a part of each other and no longer can we work or allow this division that takes place within our society, keeps us apart from each other. No, we are a part. God made us in the manner in which he did and if you go and look in your garden, if your flower bed looks like mine, it has more than one colour flower in it. You know, we are all apart of God’s creation to be used and to be recognized though, I’m different., I’m a part of you. And such as this, you thought about me coming on and I thought about you like, oh man, I would love to work with you. Why? Because we really are a part of each other. And the damage comes when we continue to separate ourselves and find ways to separate. That’s what I like about the Memphis Christian Pastors Network. We’re are working hard to find, to be drawn together, black, white, male, female. We ain’t sitting around arguing can a woman preach? Yeah, look, listen, everybody come on and bring your talents, your abilities, your resource, and let us work to solve problems for our community, for our city, for our state. And we see ourselves together, that’s one, that’s oneness. Oh, what did Jesus say, I pray, I pray, I pray father that they become one, even as you and I are one.
Karin Conlee: 32:26 Well Pastor Kirkwood, Colonel Kirkwood you just are such a gift to me personally, and to the city of Memphis. Thank you so much for the perspective that you shared today and for being a guest. I know I have come up with so many more questions that we’re going to do a part two, but thank you so much for joining us today.
Colonel Kirkwood…: 32:58 Thank you so much for inviting me. I really do appreciate this too. I love the work that you and your [inaudible 00:33:05] are doing. And matter of fact, the work that you all have done it has been very, very impactful in my world. You are a blessing to me and so I just appreciate you all, so much.
Karin Conlee: 33:19 Well thank you and if you want more information on Race for Reconciliation, please go to raceforreconciliation.org. Find out about our upcoming events and ways that you can continue to be educated and that we can bring healing, hope and honor to the city of Memphis and across the country. We’ll see you next time.
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