Department of Deja Vu: Let's do it right this time.
Black community not heard in police matters
Harriet M. Ludwig
August 2001

This article first appeared on December 4, 1999 in the Gainesville Sun as a speaking out column. We are reprinting it because opponents of a Citizens Police Review Board say that there have already been enough avenues for input from the community.

For example, in a July 17 meeting before the Public Safety Committee, Jeff McAdams, chair of the Fraternal Order of Police for the Gainesville Police Department said, "In May of 1999 the city manager, Mr. Wayne Bowers, commissioned a panel of citizens called the PCC (Police Community Committee). The PCC was comprised of a diverse group of citizens, chaired by now Florida senator [then State Attorney] Rod Smith. They were tasked with reviewing race relations within GPD and the African-American community. After meeting weekly for nearly six months, the PCC presented the city manager and the commission with its findings and many recommendations. Nowhere did these findings identify any deficiencies in the current internal affairs review process. However, one of those recommendations was that GPD implement city-wide community-oriented policing to better serve the needs of our citizens. This was accomplished."

Ludwig presents a rather different view of the proceedings.

So you are a black citizen invited to a series of meetings to air your complaints about the city's police department and every statement is met with the words, "That is just your perception."

I attended 18 of the 21 Police-Community Relations Committee sessions, and only once did I hear a real answer to a citizen complaint.

The committee's alleged purpose was the improvement of relations between the city police and the black community. How can those relations be improved without honest dialogue between both sides?

Committee member Rev. Thomas A Wright said at the first P-C session, "Well, we have done it before. Will this time be any different?"

After several meetings, he submitted 20 recommendations to improve police practices and mend the adversarial relations between the two groups. He said he received no response to his contribution.

Another black committee member, attorney Ted Nichols, said, "I thought people were asked to give their input and we were supposed to listen and follow up. But so often, police at the meeting denied the charges. Some committee members also refuted citizen complaints."

NKwanda Jah, black community activist, spelled it out loud and clear at almost every meeting: "We want police to deal with drugs and other crimes in our community. We do not want them harassing our young people or using bullhorns to call them drug dealers. We do not want to be followed by police when we are carrying our normal daily errands.

"Most of the police officers are good people," she said, "but about 10 officers are abusive. You should do something about them. At least, don't assign them to work in areas where they hate the people." She received no response.

The statement submitted by [Alachua County Branch] NAACP [President] Ruth Brown, also never openly considered, spoke eloquently to a basic causes of black community distrust of the white establishment. She cited the need for public recognition of all citizens who appeared before the committee "to improve community relations, to show that person's input was taken seriously, and to indicate the positive worth of participating in government actions."

In other words, the black community was invited to the table, but not really heard when they came.

Many committee sessions were held in primarily black neighborhoods--A. Quinn Jones School, Porters Community Center, Lincoln Middle School. Similar complaints surfaced in each area--use of the "N" word, physical brutality, threats, false charges, being followed by police without cause. One Saturday about 60 middle and high school youths, mostly black, some white, met with the committee at the Martin Luther King Center. When asked what difference they saw between school regular officers and regular police officers, they said school officers are friendly, but regular officers tend to be hostile and intimidating.

One young woman told of being accosted by an officer as she walked through her own neighborhood to her home. "He demanded my ID," she said. "They seem to think that we are all drug users or drug sellers."

Never was there any admission by officers or non-professional police personnel that citizen complaints had any validity.

The committee's final report omits any mention of why City Manager Wayne Bowers appointed the committee. Black citizens had turned out in large numbers at city hall in March to protest the allegedly unfair treatment of the two top black officers, Capt. Tony Jones and Lt. Lonnie Scott, by former Police Chief Don Shinnamon. Under Brown's leadership, they asked--and got--the chief's resignation.

After the meetings began, a pair of outside officials were called in. They talked to eight officials, not with the black principals in the conflict. Their report was headlined in the Sun "Shinnamon Vindicated," further fanning black community resentment.

Earl Young, project leader for the 100 Black Men, spoke strongly to the committee. He tried to explain the degree of personal insult his community felt over their concerns being ignored...but most of the committee just didn't get it.

That final report emphasizes the need for both race and gender diversity in GPD; diversity training of all personnel; adoption of community policing city wide; creation of a diverse Police Chief Advisory Council as a forum for police-community issues; reactivation of Citizens on Patrol.

The NAACP statement supports the community policing concept; asks improved handling of civilian complaints; action by city commission/city manager to ensure that police policies and practices follow federal, state and local laws; and vigorous prosecution of police misconduct.

It also seeks an adequately staffed and funded Citizen Review Board to provide redress for citizens; stresses need to reduce minority arrests and incarcerations, especially in numbers of black males, ages 18-24, who are now in prison on non-violent drug charges.

It demands the dismantling of the "two systems of juvenile justice," urges equal quality treatment services made outside the juvenile justice system to serve poor, especially poor minority, juveniles. It calls for combined police-black community programs of mentoring and home supervision for juvenile offenders.

Rev. Wright's words at meetings' end: "I was shocked at the limited number of recommendations...shocked that they were not flexible in even hearing other recommendations. They didn't seem willing to go right to the core of many problems."

Wright, Alachua County NAACP president for 17 years at the height of the civil rights movement, has been there, done that. His final words: "One thing about civil rights...every time we make a little bit of progress, there seems to be a move to push things back."

Harriet Ludwig is a journalist and community activist. She writes for Moon Magazine.

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