Friday night a dozen area law enforcement officers from several different agencies came to Mount Dora to have a dialog with citizens about tensions between police and the African American community.
Cedric Scott is concerned about what he is reading and seeing on the news lately. Relationships between police and the African American community seems strained to the breaking point in many cities.
“There’s been crazy stuff happening out there. If I can do anything to help that will keep those things from happening locally, then I want to do that. I want to prevent the things that happened in Minnesota and Baton Rouge from happening here.”
Scott, along with neighbors and friends Nate Walker and Bobby Rowe organized a community summit with local law enforcement, neighbors, community leaders, and pastors at the Bethel Independent Free Methodist Church on Friday evening.
Scott, an active resident of Mount Dora’s Northeast Community is concerned that fear caused by current tensions, coupled with distance and unfamiliarity can lead to disrespect and distrust – often with tragic consequences. He decided there needed to be dialog. He wanted to address tensions that may be simmering here in Mount Dora (and the area) between residents and their local law enforcement agencies. Scott rallied a couple of friends, sending texts out. Within a half hour the wheels were rolling and the summit was being organized.
Local law enforcement agencies answered the call to participate. Present on the panel were law enforcement professionals representing Mount Dora, Seminole County, Leesburg, Tavares, Eustis, and even a retired Orlando lieutenant.
Asked what he hoped to accomplish with the gathering, Scott replied, “I really don’t think Mount Dora has a huge race problem, or a huge police problem. I want to keep it that way,” said the African American father of a five-year old son. “I never had a fear of the cops – I want my son to feel safe when he’s around the police – I want that for him,” says Scott. “Right now I am not sure what to tell him about what’s happening, or how to act around the police.”
Resident Mary Harris, who attended with her three granddaughters said, “This is a good start. I wanted to come to listen, to actually hear what’s going on in the community. I want to hear the attitudes the citizens and the police have.”
Attendee Gary Hickson, agreed saying, “I was interested to hear what they all have to say. The police have always been helpful to me – but I want to hear what concerns people are having.” Hickson had his grandson, Jakari, along to listen, as well.
The Church’s Reverend Taylor opened the summit with a heartfelt prayer, appealing for good discourse and respect among those present saying, “Father protect the guardians of our property, those who lay their lives on the line,” adding, “and Father, help us bridge any gap between us.”
Police in attendance were seated at the front of the church, facing the attendees who filed into the nave and settled into the pews. The crowd was welcomed by Nate Walker, who moderated for the approximately 2-1/2 hour forum. Walker began with questions prepared by the organizers and then opened up the discussion to the audience, who were asked to write their concerns and comments on index cards that he read – sometimes to the entire panel of law enforcement, occasionally to a specific agency.
The goal, as articulated in Reverend Taylor’s prayer at the outset, was reiterated by Walker, “We are here to communicate, to bridge gaps between law enforcement and the community,” he repeated to the mostly African American audience.
Each agency introduced their representative and shared insights into their own policing philosophies before questioning began.
Mount Dora’s Chief John O’Grady emphasized his focus on community policing, saying, “You pay my salary,” as he addressed the crowd. “You tell us how you want us to police, and – within reason, of course – that’s what we will do. My officers know that they are to treat everyone, whether they live in the Northeast, the Country Club (of Mount Dora) or anywhere else, like they are a member of their own family. That is, with dignity and respect. If there is a problem, we may have to issue a warning citation. Worse, we may have to take them to jail, but we will treat them with dignity as we do that.”
Chief Chuck Broadway, from the Clermont Police echoed much of what O’Grady said, adding, ”Community relationships are critical to reducing crime rates and adding to our quality of life.” He commended the event organizers, saying, “Communication and dialog, like we are having tonight are key.”
Eustis police sergeant David Carny added, “We do whatever we can to promote relationships with our citizens. Anyone can approach us. We hope they do. Interacting with the police should not just be a negative experience, it should be about communication.”
Lt. Jason Paynter of Tavares said, “My badge represents what is good about our country, it’s why I wear that shield over my heart.” He went on to say that the name tag pin he wears on the other side of his chest represents the person – and the individual person may do something wrong – but the representation of the badge, which means assistance and protection, are good things.
Officer Williams from Leesburg explained that he also works to build community relationships, “I walk the streets in troubled neighborhoods in our community, it is all about building bridges. We have to work together.”
William’s lieutenant, George Whitaker, agreed and said, “We have turned many areas of Leesburg around, by working with the community. We came together and created an action team that works with the community.”
The law enforcement body offered various methods by which they try to reach out to work with the public including “Coffee with a Cop” where residents can have a conversation at a local restaurant with representatives of the police department, to Citizen Police Academies, where residents can attend informational classes with their local departments, to simply talking with residents to listen to concerns and help them to build stronger relationships with their local police officers.
Audience members asked about the ratio of minority representation in the various police departments. O’Grady, from Mount Dora responded that his department makeup includes 39 percent minority representation, including 30 percent African American. Broadway, of Clermont, said that the makeup of his department reflected the community he serves. Paynter, from Tavares said that his department has difficulty hiring and retaining minorities because Tavares’ Police Department has difficulty being competitive with neighboring agencies’ pay scales.
Lt. Whitaker of Leesburg echoed the community policing philosophy shared by the other agencies. “We have to work with our residents in our troublesome areas,” he said. We cannot turn around problem areas without the cooperation and assistance of our citizens.”
Several questions from the moderators and the audience focused on diversity training/racial sensitivity with the various policing agencies. “I like to have mature officers, ones with experience, working with new officers,” said Chief John O’Grady. “It’s about training your officers how to approach people, period. Whether they are Asian, Hispanic, black, white – it matters that they come together and learn from each other. It’s about dignity and respect, no matter who you are dealing with,” he said.
“Good community relationships reduce crime and increase the quality of life for all of us,” said Broadway. “We are not just here to arrest people. We are here to help. To help, we need the communication, the dialog from the public to address those things that concern them.”
A topic of interest to many of those in the audience was how to tell young people to handle routine interactions with the police, especially those surrounding traffic stops. The message was the same from every agency questioned – comply. Panel member Christopher LaBoo, a retired police lieutenant with the Orlando police department, responded adamantly, “Comply. Comply and live to walk away. Everyone should be spoken to respectfully and professionally who is stopped by a police officer. But, if you are not, in that moment is not the time to react.”
O’Grady offered a primer on how to file an affidavit of complaint against any officer who acts unprofessionally in his dealings with the public. Following the filling out of the document, the complainant should receive a notice of inquiry, which is followed by an investigation. The Chief of police would then discipline the offending officer, depending upon the severity of the infraction, by steps that could include written reprimands all the way to termination of employment.
LaBoo went on to say, “Every profession has good people and bad people in the field. At that moment, when you are stopped and dealing with an officer, you don’t know which type is talking to you – the good or the bad. So comply. Afterwards, call the watch commander. Report the problem immediately afterward.”
As the panel discussion came to a close, residents heard a closing prayer from Reverend Taylor, who asked the members of law enforcement to stand and be recognized by their audience. “We want you to know how much we appreciate you,” Taylor said. Following the prayer, residents and police chatted with each other, mingling in the church until a driving rain that had begun during the meeting finally tapered off.
In the end, attendee Mary Harris thought the gathering was worthwhile – though she wished more young people had attended. “I’d like to see more of these meetings,” she said.
Scott, who organized the evening, also had hoped to see more of the community’s youth in the audience. He said that overall, he was happy with the turnout, though. He hopes to have more such gatherings in the future. Tensions between police and the community they serve may not be immediately and completely relieved by such gatherings, but as Ms. Harris noted, “It’s a start.”
Melissa DeMarco, Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)