Victor Ledbetter was going to be a lawyer. The Hamlet, North Carolina, native studied prelaw at North Carolina Central University and worked at IBM while waiting to go to law school. But when he was laid off and a placement agency asked if he wanted to become a police officer in Kalamazoo, his first thought was “Where?” Then, “Hmm, that’d be great experience learning how police operate, so when I become a defense attorney, I can just be exceptional,” he recalls.
Ledbetter never became a lawyer. He found that being a cop was his calling. “The thing that struck me the most,” he says, “was you come across people and can make their lives better and do something for the better. It sounds like a cliché, but truly, when you give your life to service for others, there is nothing more rewarding.”
Ledbetter, 52, is now training future police officers as the director of the Law Enforcement Training Center at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Cadets go through a rigorous 16-week “police academy” to learn to become police officers. The program includes an intense weeklong diversity training session implemented by Ledbetter.
What brought you to the KVCC police academy program?
My mom was sick, so I retired (from the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety) in October 2017 to be with her. I held her hand when she took her last breath. My mom had just died, my sons had moved out, and I had this emptiness. I was retired for nine months, played golf, worked out, but I just wasn’t satisfied. This position came open, and some people who work at the college got in contact with my wife and said, “Vic should put in for the director of the police academy.” I would never have considered it, but I put my name in and I got it. Wow! I started in 2018.
What challenges did the new position have for you?
When the last director left, a lot of people that worked in the program also left. I had a lot of struggles to go through right away. I was hired in July, and there was an academy scheduled for August, and there was no way that I could have maneuvered that without staff, so we canceled it to prepare for the next one. There were rumors going around that this was not going to be successful — “KVCC is going to go down” and all this stuff. So I got my team — Jessica Brinks, who was a retired deputy from Allegan County, and Kenyatta Herrion, who’s my program coordinator — and said, “We can’t fight these rumors, but the way we’re going to get revenge is to be successful.”
I just prayed and trusted God, because I know when something is for you, it is for you. When our first class of cadets graduated, it had a 100 percent pass rate on the state exam. A 100 percent rate! That’s outstanding. When the state called and told me that, I cried. We also had a 100 percent placement rate — everybody got jobs out of my first academy. With the next academy, we had the same results. This is my fourth year, and we’re only getting better.
What are some of the changes you’ve instituted since you came on board?
I tell my cadets from Day One that if you develop relationships with people in the community, your job is easier. I put it on a board; I write “RELATIONSHIPS.” When you have a relationship with someone, you treat people differently.
I talk about three things: dignity, respect and relationships. You should treat people with dignity and respect, but when it’s time to turn into Robocop or whatever you need to do to take care of business, you should do that. But you shouldn’t come off that way from the beginning.
I say, “You know, I was born Black, I’ll die Black. When you see me, you see a Black male. You don’t see that I’m somebody’s son or somebody’s brother, uncle, father, husband. You don’t see that I am a retired police officer. But once you get to know me, those things come out.”
When I interview recruits coming to the academy, I often hear they didn’t have a lot of diversity in their communities, their schools or their lives. And some of their parents and grandparents feel a certain way about people of color. While the cadets may not feel that way, they’ve still heard it and developed some kind of bias or stereotypes based on what they’ve heard, whether they do it consciously or unconsciously.
How do you combat that bias?
We dedicate 50 hours in each academy to diversity training. I call it Diversity Week, and it’s the third or fourth week of academy, so it’s early on. It includes training in de-escalation tactics, ethics, civil rights and human rights, and ACEs, which are adverse childhood experiences. We have a full day of training in implicit bias and a full day on cultural awareness. On Friday, we have our “Expanding Our Horizons: A Cultural Awareness Experience,” where we invite community members to participate. It started with specifically Black men from the community, because of the issues with law enforcement and Black men, but now it’s more diverse, with people from different ethnicities and the LGBTQ community that represent the community that we serve.
We break into healing circles, where the community members and cadets go through a process that requires listening and being respectful of other people’s experiences. It’s amazing how the facilitators walk you through it and how you open up. A lot of people feel compelled to share stories. You don’t judge. Instead, you turn your mind to wonder, “Why? Why does this person feel that way? What happened in their lives to make them feel this way?” The cadets and the community members have said it is the most impactful segment of the day.
After that, we have a U.S. history lesson called “Sweet and Sour Liberty.” We talk about the laws and events like redlining that have shaped where we are in society. A lot of people never heard of redlining (when home loans were denied to people of color preventing them from buying homes certain neighborhoods). We talk about The Green Book (a guide published from 1936 to 1967 that directed Black motorists to businesses they could visit where they wouldn’t face overt discrimination or violence) and about how all these things were sanctioned by the government. It’s a heavy, heavy day, but it gives them a different perspective and appreciation of what people have gone through.
You’ve also taken on the role of Portage city council member. What’s that like?
I’m not even 90 days in yet, so I have been sitting back and absorbing everything and learning how government works from that side. I’ve seen it from the audience, but, sitting in a council chair, it’s a different view. I add a different lens to the council because I have a public safety background. I teach at the police academy. I’m a Black male. I have a lot of things that I can add to the mix. And I’m not afraid to have those hard conversations.
— Interview by Marie Lee and edited for length and clarity