An invitation at a forum on police and community relations to forget about political correctness led to some frank conversation between law enforcement and the Black community at The Commons Thursday.
Indiana State Police Capt Ruben Marte and Maj. Todd Smith led the session called “Improving Police and Community Relations.”
As he did during a similar event at Columbus City Hall in early 2017, Marte played several excerpts from television news shows displaying tense or violent traffic encounters. He then asked audience members to imagine they were police officers and explain what they would do if they were the officer being featured in the news stories.
In at least three of video clips, Marte and Smith said the officer’s conduct was either wrong or, at best, questionable. However, by polling the audience on their wide variety of opinions and reactions, the ISP captain made a point that reasonable people can often draw different conclusions when witnessing a video of alleged police brutality.
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About 90 minutes into the presentation, Marte stated that about 5% to 7% of employees of any business or organization — including law enforcement — are usually responsible for most problems. He also pointed out that when a driver gets pulled over, the officer doesn’t know if he or she is going to encounter a dangerous driver — and the motorist doesn’t know if he or she is going to encounter a bad cop.
While most of the audience appeared to appreciate Marte’s point, it did provoke a tense response from the audience.
“As a community, we don’t know if they are bad officers,” the unidentified man said. “But as a police department, you’d better know that, because you’ve gotta. Why don’t you guys do anything about that? You know who the bad ones are, because you work with them every day. And you can’t tell me that it may take a year to terminate them. Look how much damage they can do while you guys are taking your own sweet time about dealing with your own bad officers.”
In response, Smith calmly responded the investigative procedure is more like 60 days, rather than a year. In addition, the accused officer is placed on administrative duty to ensure he or she isn’t interacting with the public during the investigation.
Audience member Whittney Wood-Gaines told the presenters that male members of her family, including her minister father, have been pulled over several times by officers for no apparent reason. Wood-Gaines said Black residents feel they can’t do anything about the harassment “because, at any time, if you make (police) be fearful, they can take your life. There’s no other side. This happens far more often than you’ll ever know. We are always fearful.”
Wood-Gaines said that when she was pulled over while leaving work about a month ago, she was extremely nervous when the officer told her to get out of the car.
“I literally feel that the moment I get out of the car, anything could happen,” she said.
However, one of the biggest frustrations suffered by African-Americans is when they see white individuals or groups using profanity at the police and acting belligerent without being held accountable for their behavior.
“But if you are Black and you want to keep your life, you just can’t do those things,” Wood-Gaines said. “We’re just fearful because we have no leverage …”
Three members of the audience, all who were Black, said that type of behavior is rare in the Columbus area.
James Harris, a 56-year-old former Columbus city police officer, was one of three audience members who lauded the cultural and ethnic diversity training that Columbus police and Bartholomew County Sheriff’s deputies receive.
“But when I see there’s been a deadly shooting incident (in other communities), I wonder why the force continues to think they don’t have any other leverage,” Harris said. “They go straight to the gun.”
Pastor Mike Harris said he and other ministers have told members of the African-American community in Columbus that if they comply with an officer, they shouldn’t have a problem 99% of the time.
“But there may be a time when there is a problem,” Harris said. “Although it hasn’t been recently, there was a time when I was pulled over four to five times a year. My point is, even if you do comply, the fear is still there.”
Neither of the two ISP officers attempted to diminish what they heard from the audience members. Marte admitted that after a 2017 event at Columbus City Hall sponsored by the African American Pastors Alliance, one of the sponsoring ministers was pulled over by an officer on his way home from the event.
Likewise, Smith spoke about an African-American couple who are both sergeants at two different Marion County law enforcement agencies. Nevertheless, both worry about being pulled over whenever they are in civilian clothes and using their own vehicles.
But as law enforcement is trying to understand the fear among the Black population, Marte said both sides need to try to understand the position of the other and work to display compassion and mutual respect, rather than fear. And when Americans see a video of alleged police brutality, they need to do their own research into the story before drawing conclusions, Marte said
It’s time for both sides to start bridging the gap between law enforcement and the community that has gotten wider since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May, Smith said.
Like many Americans, Smith said he didn’t understand why other officers didn’t intervene as Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck, cutting off his air supply.
However, Smith also said he thought the “blue wall of silence” — an informal code among law enforcement officers used to cover up police misconduct — is fading away.
“We now have, within our Use of Force policy, a duty to intervene,” Smith said. “So if you see another officer acting unreasonably in any given situation, you have a duty to intervene and stop that action.”
Thursday’s presentation seemed to get a mixed reaction from the audience. While a number of attendees said they felt the exchange was helpful in bridging gaps, nearly a third of those in attendance left the Commons before the discussion was over.
The event was sponsored by Bartholomew Circuit Court Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County.
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