Keith Powell

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Keith Powell is a Captain for the Smithfield Police Department, serving as the Department’s Administrative Commander. Powell was raised on a farm in North Carolina, and he has been a police officer for twenty-two years. Powell explains that he works off-duty at the Brightleaf Flea Market, and that the flea market hires him mainly to help control traffic. Powell discusses how the Latino population in Smithfield has grown over his years as a police officer, saying that he has to tailor his way of doing things to suit the needs and customs of this new population. He explains that he believes his police force does not engage in discriminatory practices that might contribute to the overrepresentation of Latinos in the criminal justice system. Powell says that there are several Latino people on his police force. He emphasizes that language barriers can be a problem, and that having fluent Spanish speakers on the police force is helpful. Finally, Powell explains that the greatest challenge in working with the Latino population lies in spreading helpful information to ensure that everyone is seeking and receiving the protection that they need. He says that his police force is not concerned with the immigration status of community members, and he mentions that it is important to make this clear to everyone. NOTE: Interview contains some adult language.



[00:00:07] Ana Dougherty: Ok, so hi, I’m Ana Dougherty, I’m here with you today, what did we say it was? The ninth of April, at the Brightleaf Flea Market in Smithfield. And, so if you could just start by giving a brief introduction about who you are, and what your current position is, and where you come from?

Keith Powell: I am Keith Powell, I’m currently a captain of the Smithfield Police Department. I’ve been in this area all my life, I live about seventeen miles outside of Smithfield. Raised on a farm, I’ve been in law enforcement, I’ve been a police officer for twenty-two years.

[00:00:48] AD: Great. So, what kind of experiences did you have with the Latino population growing up, outside of your work?

KP: Well, I grew up on a small farm, so we, of course, had seasonal employees come in and help us. So I’ve worked hand-in-hand with them on the farm, as I grew up.

AD: And are there any stories from that time that stood out to you?

KP: Not really. I mean, we all worked together. It was a lot of fun. So, but I haven’t been farming, well I’ve been done, well I haven’t farmed any in twenty-two years, so it’s been a while.

[00:01:38] AD: And so, what brings you here today?

KP: The flea market actually hires us, the police department officers, to work off-duty, mostly for traffic control, if traffic gets bad. And just to be here. Usually nothing ever, very rarely ever happens, it’s always very quiet. A lot of good folks out here, and they just, we’re just here for presence mostly, is all.

AD: Are there other events similar to this that you get hired for off-duty sometimes?

KP: Yeah, we have several businesses in town, the movie theater they hire us to work on Friday nights and Saturday nights at the movie theater. Different events that come up that people will hire us to work, parties, quinceañeras, weddings, different things- we work with different businesses in town, that rent out businesses or buildings for parties - they hire us to work.

AD: And so, in that case that’s usually like, the businesses themselves rather than the people who are attending?

KP: Yes. Well the people that- like the armory or the shrack, if they serve alcohol, and it doesn’t matter who, if there is gonna be alcohol served, they have to have law enforcement officers there.

AD: Really?

KP: So it’s usually the people that are renting the building that hire us to go work.

[00:03:01] AD: Ok. And so, did you say how long you’ve been working with the police force here?

KP: Twenty-two years.

AD: Wow. And so in that time, I know the Latino-, especially Mexican immigration population has increased a lot in North Carolina, and I imagine in Smithfield. Can you talk a little bit about what that’s looked like?

KP: It has increased. And as law enforcement officers you have to realize that the Latino customs are sometimes different than ours, so you kinda have to tailor the way you do things, especially with the males. The females don’t have as- lot more to say, when the males are around. So you kinda have to tailor it around, to work it to where you don’t start any more problems for anybody else that you are called to talk with, or stuff like that.

AD: Would you be able to give an example of how that plays out?

KP: Well, as far as say, a domestic, the ladies will be less likely to say that something has happened. So you kinda have to get that – split, and then they’ll sometimes will talk, but still with the cultural, the male is the dominant one, so they don’t- they still won’t say a whole lot as to what took place.

[00:04:25] AD: And so is there training around that kind of stuff, or is it just something you learn from experience?

KP: We have training- we have cultural diversity training every year. It’s something that the state we go through, and then it’s a lot of on-the-job training, you learn to- you just learn to deal with things as you encounter it.

AD: So have you run into any challenges with kind of working with a new population?

KP: No, no, no. It’s been, just like with here, interacting with everybody, it’s, you know, business as usual.

[00:05:01] AD: And so, a lot of the literature talks about how Latino youth, and adults as well, are overrepresented in the justice system. And sometimes they talk about disproportionate arrests. What would you say about that, and how it’s been discussed in your force, and stuff like that?

KP: I would say that it’s, I mean I don’t see that with us. But, there again, when you’ve got a larger proportion in one certain area, if you work in that area, then if you make a lot of arrests, then the numbers can look that way. For seven years, I was the housing authority officer, so I worked in low-income housing. So, a lot of the people that I arrested were low-income, minorities. I wasn’t picking on them or stuff like that, but that was the area I worked, so those were the people that I worked with. So sometimes it looks that way when it’s really not, so there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of variables.

AD: And are there any Hispanic or Latino members of your police force?

KP: Yes, we have um, two Hispanic males- or three- it’s two. We have two Hispanic males that are on the force, our records-clerk, she’s Honduran. So we have a diverse group.

AD: Yeah. And are those, like people whose parents would have come from those countries, or are they, sort of like they’ve been here for generations? Do you know anything about that?

KP: They’ve been here for a while. I know one has just come back, he still has family in Mexico, so he goes back and visits his family. I’m not for sure about the other one though. I think he’s more from here, kind of, the family’s here, everybody’s here. So we’ve kind of got a mixture.

AD: And do you personally feel like it’s important to have that representation on the force? Do you think it changes the way that people interact with the community, or not really?

[00:07:27] KP: It helps sometimes with the language barriers. It really helps to have someone that can speak and can talk. I know a little Spanish, but not a lot. So it’s enough that I can make my way through what we’re doing, but it’s nice to have someone that is fluent, and can really- we can get to the bottom of what’s going on, so we can help them out.

AD: And so how did you learn that little bit of Spanish?

KP: On-the-job training. I’ve taken some Spanish classes, so it’s been- a lot is out here, interacting with people, and talking, and they teaching me.

AD: So Spanish is part of the training?

KP: I took on my own, took two- well I took two years of Spanish. Kind of rusty, but I can use it a little.

AD: And has the language barrier been an issue for you ever?

KP: Sometimes it has been. In some situations, if things are real tense. Yeah, it has been.

[00:08:47] AD: And do you think that there are any special needs of the Latino communities that aren’t being met, or any work that needs to be done, in terms of law enforcement and justice?

KP: I’m sure, but not off- I couldn’t, I couldn’t think of any.

AD: Or any major challenges?

KP: Well, once again, you know, the major challenges is sometimes, is giving the information out. As far as like wearing your seatbelt, and insurance, and sometimes it’s just that break in communication, of getting all the information out.

AD: So information about…?

KP: Well, I mean, just general information. So stuff like when they get stopped, or they’re gonna come for a check, a traffic check point, don’t have your seatbelt on, or driving while impaired. You know, some of that education that needs to be done more often.

[00:09:50] AD: Do you run into any issues of immigration status?

KP: No, never had that issue.

AD: So when you’re working with Latino communities, even if like, they clearly don’t speak English and they’re from Mexico, that’s not something that you deal with?

KP: No. No. Not what we’re concerned with at all.

[00:11:35] AD: Yeah, so I guess I just have one more question really, which is, do these- is it like a conversation that comes up a lot? Of how the Latino population shapes the community or stuff like that? Or is it just kind of like… I don’t know, what would you say about that?

KP: It’s not something that’s stressed, no. It’s everyday life, you know, we just kind of roll on.

AD: I mean I imagine twenty-two years ago, this market probably-

KP: This was actually a tobacco market twenty-two years ago. They actually sold tobacco in this warehouse. I actually sold tobacco in this warehouse.

AD: Really? Wow. Oh my gosh. So it’s quite a transformation.

KP: Yes, it is.

AD: But it sounds like maybe everyone just sort of moves along with it, and there’s no tension?

KP: The only tension there is, is on Sunday with the traffic. That’s the biggest issue, is traffic.

AD: And what goes on there, with the traffic?

KP: It’s just, it backs up, both directions, and it’s kind of a- we have officers, we have actually three officers that work on Sundays just to direct traffic, to keep everything going. But other than that, no issues.

[00:12:46] AD: Ok, and sorry, but I actually do have one more question, which is that I know that a lot of immigrants sometimes might kind of fear official representatives because of their legal status, more than anything. Do you feel that sometimes people are wary?

KP: I think that sometimes is an issue, that they are more vulnerable in situations because they are afraid to call the police. But they shouldn’t be, they should call, and because most of the time, we’re not worried about the immigration status.

AD: And do you have communication making that clear, of like, you can call us, we’re not worried about immigration?

KP: Yes.

AD: How does that manifest?

KP: I mean, we don’t personally, but I mean I would hope that- that’s again, what we were talking about a while ago, some of the things that we could work on. That’s one of those areas. The education, to know that, you know, if they need the police, that we’re here to help, we’re not worried about their status.

AD: Ok, that’s really great. Well yeah, thank you so much, I really appreciate it. I don’t know if there is anything else that you think is relevant?

KP: That’s it.

AD: Great, thank you. That’s really wonderful.

KP: You’re welcome.