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

04/29/2015 11:29 am ET | Updated Apr 29, 2015

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.

THE RACE FACTOR

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.

'ALL THEY WANT IS THE MONEY'

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."

'THEY WERE ABSOLUTELY USELESS'

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.

MOVING FORWARD; 'BETTER OFF'

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.”

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