Salisbury seeks dialogue to ensure order, harmony

“Come let us reason together,” the bishop prayed, quoting from the Biblical book of Isaiah, as a community meeting about race and police relations began.

About 50 people gathered at St. Paul’s AME Church Monday night, where they shared frustrations and ideas while agreeing to work together to strengthen community ties and police relations.

Among those attending were Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes, Mayor Jake Day, City Council President Jack Heath, Councilwoman April Jackson and Police Chief Barbara Duncan.

“The incidents of last week sent a shudder across America,” said the Rev. Thomas E. Tucker Jr., pastor of St. Paul’s.

“The events of last week are seeming to polarize and traumatize this nation. It’s important for us as a community to sit down at the table and try to find a path so we can have a healthy, harmonious community. Because of the events of last week and the comments I’ve been hearing that seems to be very fragile right now.

“So what do we do as a community? Where do we go? How do we react?” he asked.

Duncan said the answer lies in the strength of the community.

“This is one of those issues that is not going to wane unless we make it so. That’s why I’m here. I hope that’s why you’re here,” she said.

She invited citizens to become acquainted with police by riding with officers or to go through police officer training without live fire. The city will have a citizens’ police academy if there are enough participants, she said.

Chief Barbara Duncan, Mayor Jake Day and the Rev. Thomas E. Tucker Jr., pastor of St. Paul’s.

Chief Barbara Duncan, Mayor Jake Day and the Rev. Thomas E. Tucker Jr., pastor of St. Paul’s.

Sample-Hughes said she wants to educate youth about police procedure while they study for driving tests. House Bill 1039, dealing with that procedure, wasn’t passed during the past legislative session, but Sample-Hughes said she’d like to see it pass next year.

She called for a round table discussion and said judges should also be involved in community conversations.

A woman in the audience said she has experienced racism all her life and was followed by a Sheriff’s Office vehicle on Monday.

“In order for us to move past this place, there has to be a place where you instill trust back to the people … if we don’t change our mentality, then this,” she said, looking around the room, “doesn’t matter.”

“The hope is gone for a whole lot of people. We’ve seen a lot of things here on the Eastern Shore. I think there would be more people sitting here if they thought it was part of the solution, if they thought it would … change our atmosphere here on the Eastern Shore,” she said.

The Rev. Tucker suggested a meeting with young people, city officials, church representatives and police, to answer their questions.

He asked Duncan what African-Americans should do when they are pulled over by a police officer.

“There was a time not too long ago when we had individuals that had gotten hold of some shields and some cars that looked very similar to police cars and they were pulling people over and taking advantage of individuals,” the police chief said.

Residents who felt uncomfortable stopping were told to travel slowly to police headquarters instead. Today, she said, she would give the same advice.

A woman said her son had been stopped several times recently, most likely because he had rims on his car. He was stopped one morning at 7 and told by a police officer his back tail light was out.

The next day, he was stopped again and told he didn’t come to a complete stop. After he removed the rims, he wasn’t stopped again, she said.

She asked how a driver can get his license and registration if he can’t reach for the glove compartment.

Duncan said a driver should keep his hands on the steering wheel until given directions by an officer. “That’s the same thing I do. I leave my hands on the steering wheel until I’m told otherwise,” Duncan said.

“Please,” the woman said from the audience.

Duncan said neither the law nor police training is to shoot to kill.

“Then why are they doing it?” someone called out.

Duncan explained firearms training lasts several weeks. There is additional annual training and officers work on what’s called center mass.

“Whatever portion of that figure is showing, that is what you’re focusing your aim on. You’re not shooting to kill. You’re shooting to stop the action. Period,” she said.

One man said he learned in the military that center mass is a kill shot.

“Not necessarily,” someone else said.

“If that ends up happening, yes … many times that projectile will be fatal. Absolutely,” Duncan said.

A young woman in the audience asked the pastor’s generation to “sit down and let us take over.”

“We have to handle it our way. We don’t need a middleman. We’re tired of a middle man. We’ve had a middle man for too many years. Our experience is completely different from what you all did,” she said.

The Rev. Tucker asked her to “forgive us for caring and wanting to protect you.”

Another woman asked why friendly police officers aren’t stationed at events where fights could break out, such as playgrounds. She called for the police to become a part of the solution.

Duncan told her Salisbury Police are involved. Some are assigned to neighborhoods, play basketball with youth, read at the library and play video games with them. “I’m not saying we can’t do more,” Duncan said.

A woman who introduced herself at Alicia, who has lived in Wicomico County three years, said it’s important to first acknowledge there is a problem instead of quickly becoming reactive and venting in a way that doesn’t help.

The voice of the Black Lives Matter community is that African-Americans don’t feel their lives are valued in all situations, she said.

“We need to acknowledge there is a problem … I’m not sure what the relationship is between the African-American community and the police but I do have a black son. I have a 16-year-old black son and I worry for his life. I don’t want to feel that way,” she said.

She said police should also have resources for when they “feel overextended and overwhelmed.”

Andy Turner, a Salisbury native and former police officer, said he was careful to treat those he arrested with respect. Later, he taught at an alternative school and also treated students respectfully.

“This thing that we have is called social injustice,” he said.

“Even when it comes to hiring. We can have a black guy who has all his degrees and we can have a white guy who doesn’t have a degree and they’ll hire the white guy over the black guy. It’s an issue of fairness,” he said.

Another man urged voting out of office those who are disrespectful or make inflammatory and irresponsible statements. “Everybody’s life is valuable … we’re all God’s creation, created equally,” he said.

Councilwoman Jackson said she believes youth are traumatized.

A young man told her, “I’m a good person but I’m afraid of just being stopped (by a police officer) … I’m afraid because I’m not sure if I’m going to return home to my parents.”

“It was really sad,” Jackson said.

She asked Duncan what the recourse is for police brutality.

Duncan said there are several options, but during her 27 years in the police industry, she hasn’t met anybody “who tolerates dishonesty and who tolerates police brutality.”

“That’s not what we got into this for,” she said.

“Rooting out these individuals who, unfortunately aren’t worthy enough to wear our shield, does take time,” she said.

Councilwoman Jackson said police can develop “mental issues” and post-traumatic stress disorder and asked Duncan how often they receive psychological testing.

Duncan said there is no legal requirement. Officers are tested upon hire, if they apply for a high-level position or are involved with violence. Also, officers who are assigned to tactical units are tested cyclically, Duncan explained.

The Rev. Tucker warned against blaming police “all over the world, all over the United States, for the two black men who were killed last week.”

“By the same token, I don’t think you can blame all males, African-American in particular, for the shootings in Dallas,” he said.

“We do have a problem. One of the things our meetings have been geared toward is developing trust between law enforcement and our community. As you know, trust is very fragile. If it breaks one time it’s ruined,” he said.

“I don’t like the idea of us versus them. The truth is, if we go for the idea of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we’re all going to be blind and snaggle-toothed,” the Rev. Tucker said.

He asked Duncan about hiring minorities. She said many agencies are having difficulty hiring any police officers, regardless of race. “It’s hard for any agency to recruit, much less to recruit diversity.

“I can talk to you about trust and transparency. Really great sounding stuff, but the bottom line is, where is that person who wants to serve? Where is that person who wants to go from guardian of constitution right to warrior, and then back in?”

She said she cringes when she knows her daughter, a police officer in New York, “is going out for a shift.”

“I never thought about what I was putting my parents through when I got into this business. It’s not easy,” she said.

The mayor said he is ready to have tough conversations “and fight for our community.”

“Let’s have these conversations. Let’s fight for our community and make it the best place in the world.”

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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