Hopkinsville police to undergo diversity training after video stirs controversy

Try ‘that‘ in a small town

by Jennifer P. Brown and Julia Hunter, Hoptown Chronicle, Kentucky Lantern

In the wake of an officer’s controversial social media post that drew both support and outrage from community members and tens of thousands of TikTok users, Hopkinsville Police Chief Jason Newby says he’s coordinating plans for all officers to undergo diversity training.

In the video, Hopkinsville Police Officer Jerimiah Kline lip syncs to Jason Aldean’s controversial hit song “Try That in a Small Town.” (TikTok screenshot)

Officer Jerimiah Kline came under fire early this month after posting a TikTok video of him lip syncing “Try That in a Small Town” by country musician Jason Aldean. The song was described by critics as a call to racist vigilantism after the July 14 release of its music video, which was filmed at the site of a historic lynching and included news clips of violent clashes between police and protesters at Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020.

As debate stirred in the weeks following the video’s release, the song rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list, ignited widespread criticism, and had its video pulled by Country Music Television. It was later replaced with a version that omitted the most violent images.

In Kline’s TikTok video — posted the week after Aldean’s video release — he’s in uniform and next to a Hopkinsville police cruiser with emergency lights flashing. It prompted responses from critics who questioned why Kline would post a video featuring the Aldean song after the recent controversy surrounding it.

The concerns carry added significance in a diverse community. Approximately 27% of Hopkinsville residents are Black.

The video, which received more than 150,000 likes, was shared by dozens of supporters who posted videos of themselves lip syncing alongside Kline. Often, the posts included the hashtag #standwithjasonaldean.

Local officials first began receiving complaints about Kline’s video after TikToker Michael McWhorter — who has amassed 5.8 million followers under his handle @TizzyEnt by denouncing apparent racist, homophobic and violent behavior — drew attention to Kline’s take on the Aldean song.

As of Aug. 25, McWhorter’s response, which also points to other Kline videos that he argues are homophobic and unprofessional, had 1.8 million views and nearly 8,000 comments.

Kline, who uses the handle @nlc_gunsanddonuts, has since deleted the video and made his account private. However, his original Aldean video is the sole post under an account using the handle @nlc_gunsanddonutss. The description for the account says “Not agency affiliated. All Toks made off-duty.”

Police department responds, ‘addresses issue’

Jason Newby. (Hopkinsville Police Department)

After receiving complaints about the video, Newby posted a statement to Facebook on Aug. 3 assuring the community that the “issue has been addressed and will not be an issue moving forward.” He went on to note that he was working with city officials to modify policies regarding employees’ use of social media.

In a brief interview with Hoptown Chronicle, Newby declined to identify Kline as the subject of complaints he received. But in an Aug. 4 letter obtained through a Kentucky Open Records Act request, he wrote the following to Human Resources Director Kenneth Grabara:

“Officer Kline had no ill intention when he made the video. He was simply suggesting that Hopkinsville Police Department is not going to tolerate criminals coming into our community and putting our citizens in harm’s way.

“Officer Kline acknowledged that even though he had no ill intention, he understands now how being in uniform while posting on social media can cause issues and it will not happen again.

“Officer Kline did not violate any Hopkinsville Police Department policies, however; I do feel there is a need to adjust our social media policy to better guide our employees in the use of social media and the reflection it may have on our city and agency.”

Newby also told Grabara that Kline would complete diversity awareness, workplace positivity and harassment prevention training. 

On Aug. 4, 10 and 15, records show that Kline took three online courses — Creating a Positive Work Environment; Diversity, Inclusion & Sensitivity; and Preventing Discrimination & Harassment: US Employees. The three classes — provided by online compliance training company Traliant — lasted a combined 1 hour and 25 minutes, Grabara said.

The day before Newby published his statement on the Hopkinsville Police Department’s Facebook page, Kline posted a TikTok that included an image that stated, “Disliking me is one thing. Being able to whoop my ass is another story. Stay safe.” 

The post included an audio clip that looped in the background. It said, “I just want to say this from the bottom of my heart. I’d like to take this chance to apologize … to absolutely nobody.” Still viewable on Aug. 16, the post has since been removed. 

 This post by Kline has been removed. (TikTok screenshot)

Kline, 26, has been a sworn officer with HPD since March 2020. Previously he was a public safety officer, a position that can lead to sworn officer status after completion of the state police academy’s 20-week course. 

Hoptown Chronicle, in messages sent to the City Clerk’s Office and to Newby, requested to interview Kline. He has not responded.

An Aug. 2 email from Hopkinsville-Christian County Human Rights Commission Director Raychel Farmer to Newby and Hopkinsville Mayor James R. Knight expressed concern for the sentiments in Kline’s video and the negative attention it brought to Hopkinsville. In the email, Farmer urges the officials to “make a public statement of non-support of Officer Kline’s actions and that some disciplinary action will be taken.”

No disciplinary action or recent change in employment status is indicated by the records the city provided to Hoptown Chronicle. City officials said there were no records of citizen complaints involving Kline. 

The city denied Hoptown Chronicle’s request for Kline’s employee evaluations, citing a privacy exemption to the open records law. Hoptown Chronicle filed a second request, asking the city to reconsider based on a substantiated public interest that outweighs the privacy interest in this case. The city again denied the request for Kline’s evaluations. 

Community members express outrage, support 

The debate surrounding Kline’s social media messaging dominated the Aug. 15 meeting of Hopkinsville City Council. Fifteen people spoke before a packed council chambers, and of those, 10 were critical of him. Some said HPD should fire the officer for his online behavior. 

Kline, in civilian clothes, was present but did not speak.

While the video featuring “Try That in a Small Town” initially generated most of the pushback against Kline, the criticism heard at the council meeting centered around his use of the “OK” hand signal throughout social media.

Hopkinsville Police Department.(Hoptown Chronicle)

The gesture has been adopted in recent years by white supremacists as a “white power” symbol. Kline’s supporters at the council meeting said it has a different, benign meaning to them. They described it as a game many have played since they were children, where the symbol is flashed to make someone look — similar to a “gotcha” game.  

In July 2018, four police officers in Jasper, Alabama, were suspended for flashing the same hand symbol in a photograph. 

“One of the issues was the picture with the hand sign. I don’t actually care what he thought it meant. It doesn’t matter,” Hopkinsville resident Becky Dearman told city council members.

“He is supposed to protect and serve all of us, and I feel not that protected,” she said. “The contents of his TikTok were not just racist, they were homophobic. One of the things that I told Mayor Knight was, ‘I’m going to be honest I wouldn’t feel super secure if I had a call to the police in the middle of the night and a cop that had put blatantly homophobic material up showed up to my house.’”

Nancy Askew, who is Dearman’s fiancée, said, “There wasn’t just a symbol on a photo. … There’s a clear pattern of behavior for his public image and the image that he portrays with his badge on.”

Jeff Taylor, a former state representative and economic development official for Tennessee Valley Authority and the state of Kentucky, asked for the “immediate dismissal” of Kline. He said the council should consider how many employees of a store, a factory, bank, hospital or school would keep their job if they flashed a symbol that community members view as racist.  

“He’s ruining it for a lot of good officers,” said Taylor. “And there are good officers.”

Taylor later told Hoptown Chronicle, “I truly don’t believe there’s (another) police force in the entire nation that would allow this.”

Cherry West, who previously owned a liquor store in Hopkinsville, spoke to council about negative views of Hopkinsville and the police force for past allegations of aggressive behavior toward soldiers and minorities. The perception persists, and it’s why  Clarksville, Tennessee, has vastly outpaced Hopkinsville in population growth, she said.

Robert Bussell, a Black man who described a longtime friendship with Kline and his family, said the meaning of the hand symbol has been blown out of proportion. 

“It’s as simple as, ‘I got you,’ or ‘Made you look,’” he said, adding, “It’s not about race.”

Bussell said he has personally seen Kline helping Black residents in distress. 

Former Hopkinsville Police Chief Clayton Sumner, who stepped down earlier this year, said retirement allows him to speak with no filter. He described Kline’s TikTok videos — which frequently appear with the hashtag #humanizethebadge — as a light-hearted approach to help the community see police officers as people. He said those criticizing Kline are trying to cause controversy rather than trying to fix things.

Transparency, cooperation sought

During an NAACP meeting Aug. 21 in Hopkinsville City Council chambers, Newby told local chapter president Terri Redwine that he wants her to review changes that are coming to HPD policies in light of recent criticisms.

“We are changing nearly every policy that the Hopkinsville Police Department has. Once we have those in place … I would like for you and whatever committee to go over those with us for any recommendations for changes,” Newby told Redwine.

The meeting included several NAACP members who observed while Redwine questioned Newby, the mayor and Christian County Judge-Executive Jerry Gilliam on several race-related issues. The city taped the meeting and published the video on its YouTube channel.

Mayor J.R. Knight hosts the NAACP
Mayor J.R. Knight hosts the NAACP
City of Hopkinsville, KY

A few days before the NAACP meeting, Redwine and Newby met to discuss the controversy over Kline’s social media, she said.

Newby declined to elaborate on their discussion during the meeting. “The concerns were heard. It has been addressed and it is still being addressed. And that’s about as much as I can say,” he said.

While Redwine said the NAACP “will not continue to debate the Jerimiah Kline debacle,” she also spoke about race relations more broadly and what is at stake in Hopkinsville.

“I feel that too many of our Black people are moving out of the city of Hopkinsville because they are being racially profiled,” she said, adding her siblings won’t even come to the city because they believe it is “blatantly racist.”

Local officials cannot control everything, but others pick up “the vibe that you portray,” she told Newby, Knight and Gilliam.

“We do not want another Breonna Taylor here in Hopkinsville. We don’t want division. We want this community to remain our community as a whole. We don’t need outsiders here telling us how to run our community,” she said.

But if outside help is needed, it will happen, she said.

Redwine said her approach is to go straight to local officials for answers. But others won’t do that, she warned.

She also addressed members of the community. Prayer, transparency and communication are key, she said, adding “stay off social media and the madness.”

Complaining on social media is useless, she said. If someone has a complaint, they ought to file a formal complaint. “We must have a paper trail,” she said.

Redwine, who became the chapter president earlier this year, encouraged local residents to join the NAACP. The organization is not a “secret society,” she said.

“I don’t want it to be us versus them. I want it to be we the people,” she said.

She also said, “I live here in Hopkinsville. I will not be harassed by no police officers because of what I said, because you are going to hear it if I do.”

Looking forward

Newby told Hoptown Chronicle in an Aug. 22 email that the city’s human resources office is working with Hopkinsville Community College to provide diversity training for the officers. The details are pending.

Since Newby became chief earlier this year, HPD has made several hires and now has 79 officers. It is the first time in about 10 years that all of the department’s positions have been filled, officials said at the Aug. 1 city council meeting.

“It is my plan to have all officers attend the training,” Newby said in the email.

This article is republished from Hoptown Chronicle.

Top photo: Terri Redwine, president of the local NAACP chapter, right, addresses, from left, Hopkinsville Police Department Chief Jason Newby, Hopkinsville Mayor James Knight and Christian County Judge-Executive Jerry Gilliam during a meeting on Aug. 21. (YouTube screenshot)