Sheriff's assistant battles racial tension

(NEW ORLEANS) -- Kenneth Jones spent 20 years in the Army, immersed in fighting overseas drug trafficking, becoming an expert in counterterrorism and heading up criminal investigations. A Vietnam veteran, he has traveled the world, with tours of duty in Korea, Germany and Panama.

And although he retired from the military in 1994, he now finds himself in the midst of a drastically different battle.

Hired in July as a special assistant to Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee, the New Orleans native set out to bridge the divide between the department and the African-American community.

But turbulence came quickly, when in October, Lee hired Ron Guagliardo, an ex-Causeway officer fired earlier this year after he was taped making racial slurs while offering to help officers dodge civil rights complaints. Although Guagliardo resigned a few days later, Lee called an Oct. 19 news conference to chastise his critics, saying the African-American community should direct its outrage not against him but rather black-on-black crime and rap music that glorifies that kind of violence.

Additional challenges

Jones, 50, considered resigning after Guagliardo was hired, but stayed. He said he remains loyal to Lee and is concerned about the state of the black community.

"Certainly, these press conferences have presented me with additional challenges," Jones said, adding adamantly that Lee is not a racist. "I was hired to do a job, and I'm going to do that job. Period."

While supporters applaud Jones' outreach efforts, critics argue that Lee's actions and race-baiting language cast a lingering shadow on his work.

"The sheriff has the responsibility to try to build the trust. I don't think Mr. Jones can be the bridge-builder," said state Rep. Kyle Green, D-Marrero. "The sheriff has to be the bridge-builder."

A new job

They met at a Sam's Club in Harvey last summer. Jones, who had worked as a New Orleans police officer, had asked Lee about working at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center. But the sheriff decided to make him the department's ombudsman, a position the black community had been seeking for 10 years.

"I think initially most people thought I was a black man being put on the sheriff's staff to divert attention away from something they thought might have been going on," Jones said.

The Rev. Wilbert Tross, president of the Westside Missionary Baptist Association, said Jones' position had great potential that was undercut by Lee.

"If (Jones') objective is to seek harmony between the African-American community and the sheriff's office, I don't think he's making a lot of progress on that right now," he said.

The association has been a strong critic of Lee's in recent months, demanding an apology and resignation following Guagliardo's hiring. "I don't know how in the world (Jones) will accomplish this until this tension breaks down," Tross said.

Jones feels he has a duty to help repair the communication gap and distrust between the sheriff's department and the African-American community.

"Many of the people in the community need someone with a little patience to sit down and help them articulate what it is they actually have a need for."

Looking for causes

Meanwhile, Jones stages his own fight one day a time.

Every day, after finishing his duties as a senior Army instructor at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in New Orleans, Jones heads home, prepares reports for the sheriff and then hits the streets, where he patrols from about 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Major Dennis Erwin often patrols with Jones.

"Kenneth is an educated, articulate individual who knows what to look for," Erwin said, recalling how early on, Jones got out of the patrol car to talk directly with residents.

"His style is that he intermingles with the community to see what its needs are, Erwin said. He tries to reach everybody. He's a guy who wants to make things better. At times, Jones teeters between being a police officer and a sociologist. He has often said his position is centered on violence, not race, and that Jefferson's violent crime is predominantly in ethnic minority neighborhoods. In the same breath, he credits the pattern to a lack of education, few resources for the young and an overall detachment he says African-Americans feel toward their communities, even in the face of phenomenal growth in the parish.

"African-Americans don't feel like they're real stakeholders in the community," he said. "They're not experiencing the kind of success we call the American Dream. That dream, to them, is something foreign."

Jones said he is pushing for some policy modifications to ease the tension between authorities and residents, including having police tell people why they are being stopped.

"You need to be able to explain to people what the police are reacting to," he said. "If you're stopped by the police, you deserve to be told why you're being stopped."

He also wants to erase divisions in the community that, for some, make crime somebody else's problem.

At a recent meeting of the Maplewood Civic Association, a predominantly white group, Jones preached about the necessity of cooperation and unity.

"We're all in this together, whether you like it or not," he told the group. "It's our community. Drugs and violence obey no gate. It's not an us-and-them issue."

Linda Roos, a member of the Maplewood association, said she was impressed with Jones' devotion to his job.

"It looks like he really does care and wants to make a difference," she said, adding she better understands his role in the community.

"I thought he was there just for African-Americans, but he wants to work with everybody," she said. "We needed to know that too."

A tough road ahead

For some, the real issue is not about Jones' work in the black community as much as the seeming contradiction between his efforts and the well-publicized racial incidents involving Lee.

State Rep. Green said Lee's comments throw a lingering shadow on Jones' initiatives in the parish.

"It undermines whatever he's trying to do," Green said. "The message emanates from the sheriff, not Mr. Jones. (Lee's) comments to the black community are alarming. (Jones) can be effective in the sense that he and the sheriff are on the same page."

Green believes there is a lack of trust between the department and black residents that Jones alone is incapable of fixing.

Opinion on Jones is sharply divided among African-Americans, Tross said, with some believing Jones will stand by the community while others see him as Lee's puppet.

"There are some people who don't trust him," Tross said. "There are strong feelings on both sides."

Dismissing the idea that he is a token, Jones said he will continue in the post despite criticism and the inevitable questions that swirl about his effectiveness.

"People have come to have faith in the idea that 'If I tell this guy something, he's going to the sheriff with it and, as a result of that, something is going to happen, " he said. "African-Americans do need a voice and, as long as I'm there, I'll make sure that that voice is heard."

(iSyndicate; The Times-Picayune; Nov. 12, 2000). Terms and Conditions: Copyright(c) 2000 LEXIS-NEXIS, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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