By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)
Alexandria residents and law enforcement officials sparked renewed conversations on how to improve interactions between officers and civilians at a community meeting last week at the Durant Center.
Billed as an “open dialogue” between residents and city leaders, the forum was inspired by the widespread national outrage following the announcements that grand juries would not indict police officers in connection with the deaths of unarmed black suspects in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City.
Mayor Bill Euille said he is committed to working with the entire community to address race relations, interactions between police and civilians, human and civil rights and other issues.
The forum, he said, was just the first of many discussions he would have in collaboration with nonprofits, the business community, neighborhood civic associations and faith-based organizations across the city to encourage involvement and foster dialogue.
Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook said although the city is a diverse community, his department does not police neighborhood by neighborhood. Using what he called “predictive policing,” the force allocates resources based on data analysis and current events.
“We move with the crime,” he said. “Crime is an ever-moving thing.”
But LaDonna Sanders, president of the Alexandria chapter of the NAACP, felt differently. Sanders said what she heard in the forum was contradictory to actions reported on the streets.
It was doubtful anyone attending the forum had been stopped by the police, she said, and the stories she hears from residents were inconsistent with what she was hearing from panelists.
“People who live in low-income housing are policed differently,” Sanders said. “Even if it’s not the officers’ intentions, this is the perception.”
Local resident Keith Calhoun said he supports the police but wants to see improvements with officers’ interactions with the community. Calhoun said he leaves nothing to chance when he encounters local officers.
“I still get stopped,” he said. “The first thing I do when I get stopped is my hands go out the window so they can see I don’t have anything in my hands.”
City officials said they want to be proactive in dealing with complaints of misconduct.
“When we hear criticisms, we need to effectively investigate and take action,” said City Attorney Jim Banks.
Cook agreed, saying the police department places a priority on training officers in diversity, ethics, mental illness and dealing with different people they may encounter on the streets.
“We need the community to feel comfortable telling us when someone might have a bias,” Cook said.
Alexandria City School Board Member Chris Lewis asked the panelists what law enforcement is doing to prevent bias creep, where officers or officials inadvertently let preconceived notions enter into interactions with residents.
“I’ve had good experiences with Alexandria Police, but when I watch shootings on the news, it frightens me,” he said. “I could be that guy in the toy store holding a toy and getting shot.”
Cook said officers use force strictly on a case-by-case basis.
“[We depend] heavily on the public to tell us what is being done to them,” he said. “When you tell us something, we do an objective evaluation and investigation. … Either it’s retraining or it’s elimination from our force.
“We don’t have a sure fire method to get rid of bias, we just keep preaching our values, our ethics, and we train every year.”
Sheriff Dana Lawhorne told Lewis his department is always on the lookout to prevent poor practices by deputies.
“We need to actively look for bias creep,” he said. “I’ve been told I am a micromanager, but it’s my job to be nosey.”
Worried about the legacy law enforcement would leave behind, resident Joyce Rawlings said she appreciates the fact that she is on a first-name basis with many city officials, but at the same time, was concerned new hires may not have that same compassion for the community.
Lawhorne agreed and said it was a special experience to live and work in a town that you live and grew up in.
“I look over there and see [John] Porter, who taught me when I was 13 years old at Parker Gray Middle School,” Lawhorne said. “Last week I went through the drive-thru at McDonald’s with Mr. Porter and he was blurting through the speaker that he wanted two cups of coffee, and a girl came back and said, ‘Good morning Mr. Porter.’
“What do we do about it? I like to hire locals. It doesn’t take anything away from anyone who didn’t grown up here [but] I’m always looking for that person who grew up here … it’s special to have them work for us.”
Only 11 percent of city employees live in Alexandria. Last fall, local police groups lobbied city council for a pay increase in the upcoming fiscal 2016 budget, noting that Alexandria is just too expensive for many officers to rent or buy homes inside the city limits.
Sanders said she had heard a lot of officials’ overtures before.
“The new, ‘We have to do it a different way, we have to find innovative ways to reach out to people whose voices aren’t being heard,’ is stuff that I’ve heard all the time, and yet we continue to do the same thing over and over and over again,” she said. “What I would like to see happen is that these conversations occur in non-traditional places like the courtyards of low-income housing, churches and barbershops.
“That’s where we want to see them. We see them a lot of times when its election time, or when something big has happened, or it’s a National Night Out. We can’t forget about the youth. We’ve got to be mindful of them. I’d like to see them in the schools. We’ve got to make this a priority.”