Photo by Kyle Vass THE CHANGE AGENT: Huntington’s First Black Police Chief vs. The Overdose Capital
By Kyle Vass
When Karl Colder became Huntington’s first Black police chief in November of 2021, he was three years into his retirement as a senior agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration – a major selling point for the city. Colder’s arrival came at a time when headlines of tragedy like “America’s overdose capital sees 27 overdoses in four hours” were shifting to those of praise for a city’s “pioneering approach” to the overdose epidemic.
Moving away from the traditional war-on-drugs approach, Huntington developed a Quick Response Team that wrapped people who had experienced an overdose in support, linking them with services in the community. The city, under Mayor Steve Williams, had cut overdoses by 40 percent and drug-related homicide by 70 percent. No stranger to mixing it up himself, Colder credit’s the mayor’s vision and success in revitalizing the city as his inspiration for moving to Huntington.
In his 25 year- c areer with the agency, Colder went from being a field agent to a supervisor with the DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility – overseeing internal investigations into the conduct of its agents and supervisors. Eventually Colder became a “special agent in charge,” overseeing all the agency’s operations for Washington, D.C. and three states including West Virginia.
Despite the agency’s role in the war on drugs and documented incidents of racism, Colder used his rise through its ranks to advocate for change. His retirement had been bookended by two incidents where he criticized the DEA publicly for not addressing failures within the agency. The first incident brought him to West Virginia to address his employer’s failure to keep West Virginians safe.
“When [Huntington] had those 27 overdoses, people were calling me saying ‘What are you guys doing?’ And I say, ‘Well, we’re doing what we can, but we need more people here’” On his visit, Colder told Eric Eyre, that the DEA had failed to bring leadership to the state. Eyre had led an investigation showing millions of prescription pain pills had been shipped to small-town pharmacies all across the state and wanted answers. And, Colder gave them.
In his interview with the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in West Virginia, Eyre, Colder criticized the agency’s history of underfunding operations in West Virginia – the state with the highest opioid overdose in the nation. “[The DEA] had no leadership in West Virginia. We had none,” adding that people who held his job in the past never bothered engaging communities in the state. Along with the frank admission of his agency’s short-coming, he revealed a plan to expand the agency in the state and better monitor the distribution of opioids through the state – a promise he made good on.
The second incident where he spoke out against the agency came two years after he retired. This time, he drew on his experience at the DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility and signed a letter along with 75 other former agents saying the agency had failed to address instances of systemic racism predominately against its Black employees. According to one news report, Black DEA agents who have filed suit with the agency of incidents over the years could be owed upto $12 million in attorney fees alone from the agency not including any potential damages they could be awarded.
In a letter addressed to then U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Colder and his former colleagues wrote, “Unfortunately, it has taken the despicable killing of George Floyd to awaken the collective conscience of the American people.” The letter added, “For the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the country to be blinded to this notion is inconceivable and will continue to have detrimental consequences.”
At the time, Colder told the Associated Press, “You still don’t have African Americans in positions to really monitor and ensure things are equal.”
Colder wasn’t shy about the work cut out for him. In an interview with local press after he was hired as the city’s new Chief of Police, he said “My role as a police chief validates that a Black man can lead a police department that is 90 percent white. I believe we can do a better job letting the public know we are here to support the entire community. Whatever barriers may have existed before, I am committed to putting in the work to erase them. That includes getting to know this community better and looking internally at hiring practices, including recruitment strategies that bring about more diversity throughout our department.”
In the short time he’s been in Huntington, the community has been top priority for Colder, who spends his free time volunteering as a basketball coach at a local youth center. Colder said he hopes he can use his position as a Black leader in Huntington to expand programming offered in local youth centers, o because there were ones just like these that played a pivotal role in his own childhood. ”I’ll never forget how much of an impact [community centers] were to the Black community because it gave the young kids a place to go and to play athletics.”
Colder’s penchant for addressing racial disparities and embracing evidence-based solutions is on-brand for a city that has begun to do the impossible: turn the tide of the overdose epidemic in the state hardest hit by it. “The obstacle is to get people to trust you guess what, how many people ever thought that they would have a Black chief in Huntington? I have to, I have to use that to my advantage to show people that this can be done. And the show to show young people, young people that they can do this.”