An earned mutual respect and the understanding of one’s community are vital components for a relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve, according to panelists at a community policing and civil rights forum at True Vision Church in Kirby on Thursday.
A predominately African-American audience of more than 70 people came to hear how the panelists – two elected leaders, two top law enforcement officials, and an attorney – would address strengthening the bond between community and law enforcement.
The discussion comes at a time when more and more incidents of excessive use of police force and officer-involved shootings are dominating national headlines. Some cases have led to protests and social unrest. All have led to increased tension between law enforcement and the communities they’re charged with protecting.
Since his election as District Attorney last November, Nico LaHood has made it a point for his office to hold regular citywide public discussions where he and colleagues could personally talk with residents about how to best solve conflicts that may arise between community members and law enforcement. LaHood invited State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio), attorney Stephen Foster, Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau, and San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) Deputy Chief Roy Waldhelm to facilitate a wider discussion.
“I thought to myself with the recent events, we need to do something that could help the youth of today,” Menéndez said, referring to incidents and protests in such cities as Ferguson, MO., Cleveland, and New York City.
He acknowledged that while residents should trust law enforcement personnel whose job is to serve and protect the public, not all have such confidence. Accountability is the first step towards a more positive interaction between the police and the community, he said.
“Whether good or bad, (law enforcement) are accountable for all that they do,” Menendez said.
Several audience members submitted note cards with questions for the panelists but as time ran out, the speakers could only address a couple of questions with a pledge to answer everyone else’s queries later via personal communication. One question, from local activist Mike Lowe, was randomly picked and posed to all the panelists: “What does ‘black lives matter‘ mean to you?” It’s a reference to the titular grassroots movement sparked by the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, a white man, in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin.
Lowe wore a “Black Lives Matter” shirt to the forum. He’s represented SATX4, a local grassroots organization founded in reaction to a grand jury’s decision to not indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson who shot and killed Michael Brown, who was unarmed. SATX4’s goal, according to its website, is to “expose systemic racial injustice.”
During the forum, Menéndez said “black lives matter” means dignity and respect for all people, no matter their race, religion, gender or socio-economic status. He added that neither dignity nor respect was present in a Texas state trooper’s arrest of Sandra Bland in Waller County last month.
What was initially a traffic stop for a reported moving violation turned into authorities detaining Bland July 10 at the county jail, where employees found her dead in her cell three days later. Authorities claimed Bland, an African-American, had hung herself. Family members and others claimed foul play. A police dashcam and a bystander’s cell phone captured an escalating situation between Bland and the state trooper, Brian Encinia.
“Sandra Bland shouldn’t have been in jail,” Menéndez said to a round of applause. “The officer didn’t issue her a warning. He allowed the situation to escalate.”
LaHood agreed with Menéndez that true justice is blind, and that more educated a community is about its law enforcement representatives, the better off it is.
Waldhelm said as 51-year-old white male, he does not fully realize what many African-Americans have endured nationwide over the centuries, but that the frustration in the community is understandable.
Pamerleau said when a term such as “black lives matter” is spoken, it means society should seek to understand why a seemingly negative phrase is said and turn it into a positive chance for mutual understanding.
“It’s a teachable moment,” Foster added, agreeing with the sheriff. “Black lives have been different than most others. We have to put a value on the experiences we’ve all had.”
Lowe, who recently moved to San Antonio from Georgia, said he personally encountered aggressive officers and cases of mistaken identity during traffic stops in his previous state. Following Thursday’s forum, Lowe said, generally, the panelists had a unique perspective that resonated with him.
“The DA kind of put it that, all lives matter. The sheriff said that she hears ‘black lives matters,’ it means we all should be concerned why it’s being said,” Lowe remarked. “I even resonated with the deputy chief saying he can’t identify with the problems because of his race.”
Foster, who has served in various capacities statewide, said he as an African-American can relate to the civil rights struggles that have taken place over the decades.
But all of the social, economic, and political gains that African-Americans and other minorities have made are instantly overshadowed when a law enforcement officer guns down an unarmed person of color, Foster said.
“It’s never going to work when a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland dies and police who shot him don’t help him, and when someone comes into a church, guns down nine people and gets a ride to jail,” he said, citing the Tamir Rice shooting in Cleveland and the killing of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. by Dylann Roof, a white man.
But opportunities arise from such tragedies, he added, blacks and other minority communities have a chance to improve their relationships with police by making “one-on-one connections.”
“We as minorities have to bridge those gaps, otherwise we’re going to keep seeing the same problems over and over,” Foster said.
Sheriff Pamerleau said the right kind of community policing begins long before law enforcement personnel hit the streets, when an agency has the chance to ensure its force represents and reflects the community for which it works. Pamerleau added she appreciates San Antonio’s cultural diversity and realizes each law enforcement organization has its challenges. To that end, she said the sheriff’s department makes a “focused effort to recruit people from all parts of the county and city.”
Pamerleau said she recently asked one black deputy what he thought of the nationwide controversies. She said the deputy responded that he strives to have regular conversations with his colleagues, especially white deputies, to help them better understand the strife African-American communities are feeling in a places like Ferguson or Baltimore, MD.
Race is not the only factor that comes into play when understanding a community, Pamerleau said. The sheriff’s department is trying to better comprehend forms of mental illness and pressures that suspects or county jail inmates may face. The importance of which has been recently highlighted by the apparent suicide of Sandra Bland while in custody after her arrest over a minor traffic violation in July.
“These are the kinds of challenges we must think about and try to relate to,” she said.
LaHood said he, as the area’s chief prosecutor, has no problem holding a troubled police officer accountable because “one bad cop makes all cops look bad. A bad prosecutor makes all prosecutors look bad.” LaHood said he and his colleagues took an oath to “get things right” and seek justice above all else.
The district attorney briefly outlined the typical steps his office undertakes while investigating any officer-involved shooting (OIS). His objective for sharing such information was to help residents understand that a complex process is in place to address an OIS after the initial shock of the incident has worn off.
“Ultimately, the goal is to re-establish trust in the community. Nobody agrees on every single thing in a case, but if we agree on the process, then we make headway,” LaHood said. “It’s not going to happen overnight but it will happen by being transparent and us being available.”
Regaining community trust doesn’t always have to do with race. In the case of Cameron Redus, a University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) honors student gunned down off campus by then-UIW police officer Christopher Carter in December 2013, both the officer and the victim were white.
The case has sparked much controversy over Carter’s decision to pursue Redus through Alamo Heights not knowing he was a UIW student, and his opting to use deadly force rather than let Redus enter his nearby apartment or await backup to help with the late-night situation. Only an audio recording captured the sounds of the confrontation that culminated with five shots that ended Redus’s life.
Redus’s family and other observers of the case have argued that the District Attorney’s office, the university and the Alamo Heights Police Department all had been less than transparent and dragging their feet during the investigation. This March, a Bexar County grand jury issued a no bill, or a decision not to pursue criminal charges against Carter.
Redus’s family is still pursuing a wrongful death suit against the university. The Fourth Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Aug. 12 on District Judge Cathleen Stryker’s ruling, which denied UIW’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The university claimed it is a governmental unit and a private institution, and therefore not able to be held liable for civil suits. For its part, the university announced last December it had made changes with its police department, including hiring a new chief and members, and “enhancing communication for evening/weekend calls, and putting a greater emphasis on community policing.”
The topic did not come up during the forum, but Menéndez spoke about the case afterwards.
“I wish a body cam had been available. I think body cams protect both the citizen and the law enforcement officer. When there’s a body cam, it makes you behave and aware that there is going to be a record of your actions,” Menéndez said.
Menéndez said increasing the number of body cams in the SAPD “can’t happen fast enough and they’re so universally used. It will be a benefit to everyone. If we would’ve had a body cam in the Cameron Redus case, we’d know the honest truth of what happened. That’s a very frustrating situation to me.”
The City Council this spring, as part of a mid-year budget adjustment, allocated $320,000 for 251 body cameras for bike patrol and park police officers. Those cameras will arrive in Fiscal Year 2016, which starts Oct. 1. The police department had been using body cameras on a trial basis.
SAPD Deputy Chief Waldhelm stood in for interim Chief Anthony Treviño during the forum. Menéndez said Treviño opted not to attend the event in the wake of the reported death of police Capt. Michael Gorhum earlier that day. According to news accounts, Gorhum is believed to have died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Waldhelm echoed Pamerleau‘s sentiment that he feels welcome wherever he works in the city and appreciates the cultural diversity that San Antonio offers. He acknowledged that SAPD’s 2,000-officer force has its problems, but said top officials try to identify those challenges and “get them out.” Waldhelm said he understands respect between police and its community as a two-way street.
“It’s been said by some people that respect for law enforcement authority has been lost, but I know we need to respect you,” Waldhelm said. “You can’t get respect without giving it.” He said Treviño, since his promotion to interim police chief, has emphasized to officers during training that they understand “what we do matters and how we treat people matters.”
The deputy chief pointed out the major traits that his colleagues strive to work by: Listening to constituents, being transparent with residents, and treating community members with dignity and equity.
“We want to treat people right and continue the great relationship we have with the community,” he said.
The panelists agreed that more forums like the one Thursday can benefit residents citywide. For individuals such as Mike Lowe, public dialogue is positive but action speaks louder than words. He and other residents look forward to more actions at local, state and federal levels that hold a suspect law enforcement officer accountable for his/her behavior. Even in a use of deadly force case not involving race, such as Cameron Redus, Lowe said local agencies and the legal system have a ways to go toward ensuring justice.
“You can talk all you want about whether an officer shooting is justifiable or not justified, when a family loses a life, there can be no justification,” Lowe said. “When the grand jury cleared the officer in the Cameron Redus case, that was disappointing. The DA is batting 0 for 1 there.”
*Featured/top image: Local activist Mike Lowe stands during a moment of silence with his family. Photo by Scott Ball.