Discussions about race, racism and the issues of today’s fraught climate aren’t always easy to have. But they’re necessary.
As Victor R. Sly leans back in his chair in his office within the University Police Department at Missouri Southern State University, he’s clear that it’s a conversation in which he’s more than willing to engage.
“I’m going to speak what’s in my heart,” he says. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”
A former police officer with the Joplin Police Department and a member of Missouri Southern’s University Police Department for nearly five years, Sly is also president of the Joplin branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
So given his law-enforcement background and his role with the NAACP, does he feel some degree of push and pull when discussing the issues facing our country?
Not at all, he says.
“I made a decision years ago to become a man first, before a cop,” Sly says. “Before that, 24/7 I was a cop. I loved it; I bled it. Then a light went off … that’s just not my world. My lens is open to different things. Some of my best buddies are cops. They’re good guys, and I respect them.
“But wrong is wrong is wrong.”
‘It’s in place’
Earlier this month, Sly penned an open letter to the Black community, addressing those wrongs, along with the pain many are feeling following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of law enforcement.
“You are not alone in your feelings of outrage, grief and anger,” he wrote. “These times call for our community to unite with our family, friends, churches and civic organizations to find solutions that previous generations could not. With such unity, together we can impact the story in ways that make America a safer place for tomorrow.
In the letter, Sly leans on his faith to encourage resilience and encourages those who are protesting to do so “peacefully, safely (wearing masks), responsibly and lawfully … Stay safe and vigilant, because Black lives really do matter.”
While it may not be comfortable for people to accept, let alone discuss, racism has been and still is a reality, he says – whether it’s in the form of racial profiling, inequities within the education and justice systems, or more overt actions.
“It’s there. It’s in place,” he says. “But what blows my mind is people don’t want to admit it.
“My life is great, I’m not going to lie. I’m blessed. Yes, I have been discriminated against, but I’m not going to use it as an excuse to hold me back.”
While in college, Sly majored in criminal justice, with visions of becoming a federal agent. After serving in the Air Force, he worked as a special agent for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Los Angeles.
“It wasn’t really panning out, so I called my mom who was living in Joplin and she said there was an opening here,” he says.
His move to Joplin began a long career with the JPD, where he retired from eight years ago.
Appointed to a two-year term as the local NAACP president in January 2019, Sly says a major focus has been on education. His mother, Patsy Robinson, was a longtime educator with the Joplin district and now serves as the branch’s education chair.
“We have a partnership with the Joplin school district,” he says. “We met with Dr. Melinda Moss (the district’s superintendent) to discuss implementing black history into the curriculum, not just in February.”
Having representatives from Historically Black Colleges and Universities available to meet with students on Career Day has also been a priority.
“Our numbers are down, and we haven’t had any meetings since the virus kicked in, but our members are really active,” he says.
‘It boils down to training’
In his role as NACCP president, Sly recently spoke alongside Joplin’s new police chief at a Joplin for Justice rally in Ewert Park.
“He’s a great guy,” Sly says of Chief Sloan Rowland. “He’s very transparent. He’s got a good staff under him.”
Amid the national protests that began in the wake of Floyd’s death, Sly says he was taken aback when he first began hearing calls to “defund the police.”
“That kind of threw me for a loop, so I started to read up on it,” he says. “There’s bits and pieces of it that I like. Some people think it means to come in and do away with police departments, but that’s not it. It means slashing some programs and using that money in the community, which will help combat crime.”
He cites funding for affordable housing and after-school programs as opportunities to make the job of community policing easier.
Education is also important for making improvements in the law-enforcement field, he says.
“When you’re looking at the FBI, the CIA … what do those agents have in common? They all have, at minimum, a college degree. If you’re a 19-, 20-year-old kid, what life experience do you have? If you want to be like the elite, get your degree. With that, you get more training. It all boils down to training.”
Law-enforcement has been his career, and it’s one that he continues to hold in high regard as he speaks of the need for change.
“It’s a good profession,” Sly says. “The general public, they respect you. You do your job, you respect them and they respect you back. But the good cops need to get on the bad cops; otherwise, we’re all at fault.”