When Troy University professor Dr. Christopher Bradley uttered the phrase a “tale of two Dothans” almost two years ago, it resonated like a sonic boom with some officials.
“I know for us behind the scenes … hearing Dr. Bradley said ‘the tale of two cities’ was alarming, but we all kind of knew,” said Precious Freeman of the Dothan Community Relations Group. “Working behind the scenes, it mattered to the people in leadership. They didn’t want to be the tale of two cities. They didn’t want it to be what it was.”
Bradley uttered the revelatory statement as he presented the findings of the 2017 Dothan Quality of Life Survey to a crowded room at the Westgate branch of the Dothan-Houston County Library System in August 2017. Bradley and a team of other Troy faculty and students collected 930 survey results – which posed questions on various aspects of life – from Dothan residents from mid-March to late May 2017 then analyzed the data.
While the survey revealed most people enjoyed living in Dothan, a strong line of demarcation emerged – those who were young, African American, had lower levels of education and/or had lower levels of income “were less likely to agree that their quality of life was good.”
Questions about race relations also revealed a mixed bag of results, especially regarding attitudes toward Dothan police and the judicial system as a whole. For instance, while two-thirds of whites said they believe Dothan police treat minorities with respect, only 40 percent of African Americans carried the same opinion.
Like Freeman, whose group sponsored the survey along with the City of Dothan and Dothan Police Department, the results stunned DPD Chief Steve Parrish.
“Because I have a sociology background and have a working knowledge of the dynamics involved in human behavior, I didn’t expect to see this huge issue that we had before the survey was being put together,” he said. “We wanted to know ... and find out where we were early on in my administration.”
While discussions regarding the survey have seemingly dwindled from the public conversation, officials say the 60-page paper continues to make an impact on policy and practices. For some, the survey initiated changes in place today, while for others it only solidified adjustments that were already in progress.
Police and community relations register the starkest improvement she has witnessed in two years, Freeman said.
“The police chief took it seriously,” she said. “I’m seeing fewer cases of (people) posting bad experiences (with police) on social media, and I think that means something. When we have groups at the (G.W. Carver Interpretive) museum, we ask kids what they want to be when they grow up. We have so many boys say, ‘Police officer’.”
For Freeman, the changes start with increased diversity in the police and fire departments.
“The police department – just seeing them actively recruiting, being honest about it, (saying) we have to get more African Americans,” she said. “(Fire department officials) were telling us all the programs they have to level the playing field for anyone. Seeing people being more intentional about recruiting African Americans has been really cool.”
Parrish noted the enhancements also originate from other adjustments – including the rollout of body cameras. Nearly 80 percent of the survey respondents believed DPD officers should be wearing body cameras.
“Shortly after that was when we implemented body cameras,” he said. “That’s not only been a benefit to the public, but the police officers like them, as well. Several of the complaints we have received have been exonerated as a result of reviewing body camera footage.”
The department received four “biased-based” complaints from the public in 2018, the first year DPD had the cameras, Parrish said. In three of those complaints, the officers were exonerated. Officials determined the other complaint to be “unfounded.”
Parrish said the department has implemented some multicultural training, and new recruits receive it before they even head to the police academy. Additionally DPD has expanded its junior police academy program for children and teens, giving officers a chance to bond with multiple generations of the community when parents, grandparents, and other family members attend the academy graduations.
“We expose these young kids to law enforcement and some of the things that we do and how they should act when encountering an officer,” Parrish said. “I think that helps build trust in a community.”
Parrish summarized that an improved understanding between police officers and the community has impacted attitudes toward law enforcement officials.
“I think the improvement that you’re seeing is a culture of understanding between law enforcement and community that all cops are not bad and that (troublemakers) have to respect the law,” he said. “When (residents) have a bad encounter and bring us a complaint, we investigate those thoroughly.”
Small steps lead to more
One of the main concerns residents collectively expressed was lack of job opportunities. While prospects currently abound in the Dothan area with an improving economy, Freeman still believes job opportunities – especially quality ones – remain an issue.
“I hear a lot now that ‘Yes, Dothan’s bringing jobs, but we wish they were jobs that could be a step up’ instead of restaurant jobs,” she said.
Workforce development remains a critical issue, said Mike Schmitz, who was mayor at the time the study was commissioned and is currently the chairman of the Dothan City Board of Education.
“The other side of that is there are some great paying jobs that we can’t fill in Dothan because we don’t have the skills. Let’s teach the skills,” he said.
Schmitz said Dothan City Schools leadership continues to address workforce development in several ways, including trying to develop a specialized welding program that will fill Commercial Jet’s needs. Commercial Jet converts passenger planes into cargo planes at a facility at Dothan Regional Airport.
“Commercial Jet has a special type of welding, so we’re working with Wallace (Community College) and our Dothan Technology Center to start training that so our students can get those jobs,” he said. “(Superintendent) Dr. (Phyllis) Edwards’ vision is when you walk across the stage, not only do you get a diploma, you get a career-tech certificate. If we want to help poverty, we (have to) give our students skills.”
Parrish and his department have even crafted a plan that could aid DCS’ workforce development efforts in the future. He envisions implementing a program called the Police Officer Training Corps, which will create partnerships with students as young as the ninth grade and offer them courses they will need for a career in law enforcement.
“When (a student) graduates high school, I want him to apply for a scholarship to Wallace College through the Dothan Police Foundation,” Parrish said. “When he turns 21, I want to hire that kid – who’s from Johnson Homes who’s been through all this and kept his nose clean – to be a police officer.”
While questions about affordable housing generated more positive results than negative, African Americans were twice as likely to say housing in Dothan was not affordable than whites (21.0 to 10.6 percent). The city completed an affordable housing study last year, and officials are crafting several ways to improve the market conditions in Dothan based on the results.
“I think our efforts into (establishing) minimum standards, especially for rental properties (will help),” Dothan Mayor Mark Saliba said. “It’s a sensitive topic because there are property managers and owners that are doing a good job, so you don’t want to set in place rules and ordinances that penalize them at the expense of (those) that aren’t doing the things they should do.
“We’ve got to address the worst-case scenarios that are out there. That’s improving quality of life.”
Saliba said reevaluating zoning and other ordinances will also promote growth. The city took one of those steps when it rezoned more than 153 parcels of land in and near the Newton-Burdeshaw-Cherry-Adams-Range Historic District from industrial designations to B-1 business designations in April.
The move will allow homes and neighborhood businesses to redevelop in one of Dothan’s oldest neighborhoods, which has experienced decline over the years.
“I also think improving race relations means that we’re intentionally going in areas where we know there hasn’t been as much growth,” Saliba said. “Let’s fix this so we can make it easier for a mom-and-pop to build a little grocery store right there and not have 50 parking spaces. Maybe all they need is 10.
“Those are the kind of things we need to have our minds open to in order to make sure that we are not hindering anybody from doing business.”
Evaluating the progress
While Freeman noted improvements remain obtainable, she said Dothan has changed for the better in the two years since the survey.
“If you survey again, you’ll probably get some of the same results, but systemically I’ve seen a difference,” she said. “I’m just noticing more diversity in the room. I’m noticing more diversity on boards. You’re seeing women in leadership, which I think is cool.”
The lack of recent conversations about the survey, though, concerns Freeman.
“I think the momentum is slowing,” she said. “The scary part is if you stall, you’ll start going back. We cannot afford that as a community, where we only care about ourselves and our own group.”
Saliba agrees that efforts to improve quality of life for everyone must continue.
“Are we better than we are two years ago? In some ways, we are. Do we still have work to do? Absolutely,” he said. “I think the important thing is you identify the problems and you work on them all the time. We can never give that up. We have to be intentional.”