Black Voices

Residents Say Racism Accusations Don't Tell Full Story Of Cops Who Quit After Town Elected Its First Black Mayor

A town in Missouri has been reeling since two-thirds of its small police department resigned this month following the election of a new mayor.

Tyus Byrd made history when she was elected the first black mayor of Parma, a 700-person town that is closer to the Arkansas border than to St. Louis. She beat an incumbent who had been in office for more than 20 years.

Shortly after Byrd's victory, the police chief and three other cops resigned without informing her. Two other city employees also quit.

The resignations brought national attention to Parma -- where about one-third of the population is black -- in the form of accusations of racism within town institutions. But some residents and Byrd supporters say that such claims gloss over other critical issues the town faces.


Former assistant police Chief Rich Medley said that neither Byrd's race nor gender affected his recent resignation, adding that he has worked under a female chief and with other black officials without a problem.

"I left for two reasons -- trust issues and safety concerns," Medley told The Huffington Post. He said some of Byrd's supporters had indicated she would fire police officers if she were elected and that his personal information had been circulated on social media.

"The safety concerns are from the fact that many of her family members I’ve arrested and had dealings with, and they’ve now said it’s safe to come back to Parma," Medley said. "To me, that seems like they think they’re not going to get into trouble."

Doubts over job security, coupled with a lack of conviction that Byrd would make an effective leader and concerns for his family's safety, influenced his "very hard decision" to leave the Parma police.

Byrd, who declined to comment for this story, told NBC she was disappointed that employees left without trying to come to a resolution.

“My first mission is to make sure there’s safety here,” she said.

Amir Waters, a relative of Byrd’s who grew up in Parma before moving two years ago, said he found it difficult to believe former officers who have said race and gender had no role in their resignations, as he believes race and class have affected law enforcement practices in the past.

But many of Byrd's supporters say that claims of racism are from outsiders and that they are most concerned about corruption within the department.

“I honestly do not think that the officers and city officials quit because she is black, or because of ‘safety concerns,’ nor do I believe they quit because she is a woman,” Nicole Seuell -- who is black, grew up in Parma and now lives nearby and often visits family in the town -- said. But she said she still questions how the police department has operated.


Tim Bartlett, a white resident who voted for Byrd, said troubling policing has been widespread and not solely directed at black residents. He said officers had been overzealous about ticketing minor offenses.

He said he recently received a ticket for having a car for sale parked in his driveway. Another resident, Mary Mims, said she’d received a public nuisance ticket for dog barking and had watched an officer measure a person’s lawn with a ruler to see if it followed city ordinance.

“Corruption is a harsh word, but I think in the eyes of people in Parma, that’s what it boiled down to,” Bartlett said.

“I’m not saying I want this to be a ‘wild West’ town where everyone polices themselves," he said, but noted that ticketing had been excessive.

Medley acknowledged that the police department was "very proactive" and would make traffic stops for minor but still illegal infractions like failing to use a turn signal. However, he added, those stops would usually result in a warning. Medley said he issued a ticket about one out of every seven or eight times he made a traffic stop.

"We never really received any complaints about our ticketing policies," Medley said.

Katherlene Thomas said her frustration with Parma police goes back to 2010, when she says she reported a man punching her in the face -- only to receive tickets in the mail for disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace. When she complained, she says, an officer told her she must have had some responsibility for the assault.

The next year, she said, she watched a cop who left Parma prior to the recent resignations slam her fiancé, Melvin Taylor, into his patrol car and use a Taser on him, force Thomas said she thought was unwarranted.

Thomas said her family was repeatedly verbally harassed by officers in the following years. They moved to an adjacent town last year.

“My kids had become scared of the police in Parma,” she said.

Thomas also complained about fines that come with tickets, saying she thinks the court system is “rigged ... all they want is the money.”

“If you were poor and they knew you didn't really have any connections as far as politics go locally, then yeah, [they]’re going to give you a ticket because you don’t have a choice but to go to court and pay it,” Waters said.

Parma residents' anecdotal allegations have some similarities to concerns with law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri. In a March report, the U.S. Department of Justice accused Ferguson police of seeing residents as sources of revenue through fines from citations.

Medley said he thinks most residents who have gone public with concerns over policing are "extremely anti-police in general ... given the fact that we wear a badge and enforce the law, they don't like us."


Mary Hardin and Martha Miller each own Parma businesses -- the One Stop and Miller’s Store, respectively -- that have been robbed. Hardin supported the former mayor and Miller voted for Byrd, but the women agree that police were ineffective and too often absent.

“They were absolutely useless,” Hardin said. “I don’t know where they were when we were getting robbed."

She and Miller both complained about slow response -- or lack thereof -- from Parma officers when they were needed. After Miller couldn't get through to city officers when her store was robbed, she contacted county officers who responded.

Parma has an established agreement with the sheriff's department to respond to calls when no one at the small town's police department is available, Medley explained.

"Emergency situations were always taken care of," he said.


Some residents said they hope the new administration will usher in a more productive police force.

The officers who quit "didn’t know the people here, didn’t want to know them, and I think if [Byrd] hires somebody local we’ll just be better off," Miller said.

Current and former residents who support Byrd are focused on moving forward. Waters created a Facebook page supporting the mayor to “spread some positivity” after seeing another page denigrating her.

Many are adamant that their community gets along and isn't divided along racial lines. They have pragmatic expectations for Byrd -- make sure kids have safe spaces to play, demolish dilapidated downtown buildings and oversee a police department that works with the town.

“As a child I remember Parma being so full of life... thriving businesses, we had a drugstore, a doctor’s office, a laundry mat, a bank, a library and a city park,” Seuell said. “The citizens of Parma elected [Byrd] because we were tired of the same thing over and over.”

Robert Smalls
MPI via Getty Images
Robert Smalls, born into slavery in 1839, was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives at the dawn of the Reconstruction era. A staunch advocate for African-American voting rights, Smalls proposed resolutions at the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention that protected black voters and pushed the state to create the nation's first public school system.

Smalls represented South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives by serving in the 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th and 49th Congresses. During his five congressional terms, Smalls continued to fight for black political representation and participation in politics as a member of the Republican Party. In 1895, Smalls refused to sign an amendment to the South Carolina state Constitution that essentially revoked the voting rights given to blacks in the 1868 constitutional rewrite, laying the foundation for Jim Crow laws in the state.
George Edwin Taylor
Murphy Library Univ. of Wisconsin
George Edwin Taylor was America’s first African-American presidential candidate. In 1891, he changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in an attempt to reform the party’s ideals. When this endeavor failed, Taylor joined the National Liberty Party -- a political group created by and for black Americans. He ran on behalf of the party in the 1904 presidential election, but his campaign attracted little attention.

Taylor’s platform, however, is worth noting. He called for universal suffrage for all races; federal protection of citizens' rights; pensions for all former slaves; and government ownership of public transportation to ensure that facilities, though separate, would be equal.

Perhaps the most profound aspect of Taylor’s platform was his goal to implement federal anti-lynching laws. Keep in mind, the infamous St. Charles lynching took place in 1904, the same year that Taylor ran for president with the NLP. That event is thought by some to be the deadliest reported mass lynching in American history.
Alexis Herman
Before President Jimmy Carter appointed her to head the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau in 1977, Alexis Herman was working to improve employment opportunities for underprivileged kids in Mississippi.

The drive to uplift underrepresented groups was a constant in Herman's political career. She challenged corporate America during her tenure in the Carter administration and convinced several large corporations to hire women into higher-level positions.

In 1997, Herman became the first African-American secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. There, she facilitated the end of the UPS strike by mediating on behalf of the postal workers and expanded child labor standards with the Youth Opportunity Grants program -- an initiative that increased educational and employment resources available to youth in high-poverty urban and rural areas.
Cynthia McKinney
Cynthia McKinney has been an outspoken and fearless figure since she first entered the world of politics. In the late 1980s, McKinney, then a Georgia state legislator, pressed the U.S. Justice Department to redraw district lines and create more majority-black congressional districts so that African-Americans would have more equitable representation in Congress.

In 1993, McKinney was the first African-American woman elected to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives. McKinney has taken a solid stance on multiple civil and human rights issues during her time in Congress. She was adamantly against the Hyde Amendment, a federal effort to eliminate Medicaid abortion coverage, which she called “nothing but a discriminatory policy against poor women, who happen to be disproportionately black.”

During the presidency of George W. Bush, McKinney introduced the Martin Luther King Records Act, demanding immediate release of all files pertaining to the life and assassination of King. She has also orchestrated panels discussing political attacks on black musicians.
Jane Bolin
Jane Bolin, America’s first black female judge, spent a significant portion of her career changing the judicial system by advocating for the rights of children, women and African-Americans. After her appointment in 1939, Bolin challenged -- and changed -- segregationist realities in the judicial system, such as color-based assignments for probation officials and segregated facilities in her hometown.

She presided over juvenile crime, domestic violence, neglected children and adoption cases -- all while opting out of wearing judicial robes so the children wouldn’t feel uncomfortable in her presence. With Eleanor Roosevelt, Bolin also co-founded Wiltwyck School in upstate New York, a facility that aimed to eliminate juvenile crime.
Harold Washington
Harold Washington spent his time in office raging against Chicago’s Democratic political machine. During his time as an Illinois legislator (1965-1980), Washington backed fair-housing codes and the establishment of a statewide Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

When Washington graduated to the United States House of Representatives in 1981, he was staunchly against Reaganomics and spending cuts for social programs -- measures Washington believed would hurt his constituents who relied heavily on federal assistance programs. He used his congressional seat to condemn proposals seeking to weaken affirmative action, and the Congressional Black Caucus also tapped Washington to oversee enhancements to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Upon exiting Congress, Washington went on to become Chicago’s first black mayor. He died in 1987, just a few weeks into his second mayoral term. In honor of Washington's legacy, the Chicago Tribune wrote that he gave “Chicagoans across the city a voice” and “set the tone for a new, more optimistic city and -- even more important -- turned its honeycomb of neighborhood groups into a force for improving the quality of local life.”