CLARKSVILLE — The Clarksville police chief plans to update sensitivity training after photos surfaced on social media of an officer dressed as a well-known black rapper for Halloween several years ago.
Early this week, the News and Tribune was made aware of Facebook photos showing Clarksville Capt. Joel DeMoss, a 20-year veteran of the department, dressed as Kanye West at a Halloween party. DeMoss, who is white, was tagged in one of the photos, none of which appear on his public Facebook page.
The officer issued a statement today in response to questions to the department by the News and Tribune.
"Four years ago, my wife and I attended a Halloween party dressed as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West," DeMoss stated. "At this time, I was uneducated on the meaning of blackface.
"Since then, and speaking with close friends, I understand that this could be seen on my part as being insensitive. After educating myself of the history of blackface, this is obviously something I would never do again. For this, I deeply apologize. My wife and I were not raised to judge anyone by their race, but their character and who they are as an individual. My wife and I try to instill these same values to our children."
The origins of blackface date back to just after the Civil War in the aftermath of slavery, when African Americans were often portrayed in demeaning ways in the popular culture. This included minstrel shows, in which largely white actors painted their faces and portrayed caricatures of African Americans, in effect creating and promoting racial stereotypes.
"It put into the minds of people by being demeaning that ... African Americans didn't have any self-worth," Clark County NAACP President Antia Fields said of the historical connotations. "We were not due respect, we were not intelligent people."
In recent months, the president of the national NAACP called for the resignation of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, after a photo surfaced of him in blackface in his 1984 yearbook. Northam declined to resign, but has issued a public apology.
Fields said even if DeMoss did not mean harm by his costume, it nevertheless is harmful, and that the NAACP opposes such impersonations. She invited the officer to attend a meeting of the local NAACP and also address his apology to its membership directly.
"My thoughts are that it was in very, very poor taste," she said. "It brings to the forefront that these kind of things seem to be OK for some people and they don't seem to understand why it would be demeaning or improper to do so. They really don't thoroughly understand historically ... and we really need to sit down and communicate."
Clarksville Police Chief Mark Palmer issued a statement Tuesday, saying that DeMoss' actions are not condoned. He added that the department will update sensitivity training immediately.
“It is unfortunate that a Facebook post from a Halloween party four years ago has surfaced in this way," Palmer stated. "We have discussed the issue with Officer Joel DeMoss and are in the midst of dealing with the severity department-wide.
"Although this was not intended to ridicule or mock the African American community, the officer is regretful and apologetic of his lack in understanding of the historical context behind his costume. We at the Town of Clarksville do not condone any costume that degrades or offends anyone in our community. We will be updating sensitivity training for all of our employees for better awareness, immediately.”
Fields said she would like to sit down and speak with department leaders, to know what they will be doing to improve education and training following the situation that's come to light. She further said she would love to be involved with Clarksville or any local department to help promote diversity education and sensitivity training.
"We wholeheartedly welcome the opportunity to sit down with the chief of police and all of his officers at any time," Fields said. "Because there are people who don't know historically the ramifications of this, which is still prevalent today.
"And we would like to ... speak with them on exactly what they are putting together and doing to move forward from this unfortunate occurrence, so that such instances don't happen in the future."