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An often fraught relationship is under scrutiny

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This is the sixth article in a new series examining police policy, practice and relationship to the community.

Articles in this series

It was still dark on a predawn morning two years ago when villager Shonda Sneed left her house to drive to work in Xenia, where she was due at 5 a.m. Discovering that her car had a flat tire, she opened the trunk to look for the tools she needed to change it. 

Suddenly a police officer appeared in the dark.

“He said, ‘What’s going on? What are you doing?’” she said recently. His tone felt harsh and aggressive, and it felt to Sneed, who is black, that the officer, who was white, thought she’d done something wrong. He certainly wasn’t offering to help. The national news was full of stories of police officers shooting blacks, and she was frightened.

“I froze,” she said. “I put my hands up. I did not feel safe.”

Eventually a neighbor came out of his house, and the officer moved on. But Sneed was shaken by the incident, by the feeling that the officer appeared to assume criminal behavior on her part. She’d heard young blacks talk about how police follow them at night, how they don’t feel safe in Yellow Springs, and now she felt the same way in her own hometown.

“Am I supposed to treat police like every officer is bad, because that’s how they treat us?” she said. “I don’t want that for my town.”

Yellow Springs High School junior Amani Wagner was going out to eat with her friends when a local police officer began following the car. He parked across the street as the girls stopped at Speedway, then put on the lights and pulled the car over when it left the gas station.

“We were all (five Black girls) scared,” she wrote in a recent email. 

The officer told the girls he needed IDs from all of them, and Social Security numbers if they didn’t have IDs. Wagner called her mother, who quickly showed up and walked up to the cruiser.

“He got mad,” Amani wrote, and when she asked the officer why he needed IDs from all of them, he didn’t answer, so she gave him hers, because “I was scared.”

The officer then told the girls the car’s license was expired, but that he’d let them off with a warning because the license just expired that day.

“I’ll never forget how rude and mean he was, and how frightened he made us,” she wrote.

Bomani Moyenda, who grew up in town, has seen a changed relationship between local blacks and the police department over the years. When he was young, Chief Jim McKee, the first African-American police chief in Ohio, led the department, and while there were always “one or two” officers who seemed especially aggressive with blacks, Moyenda generally felt that officers treated him with kindness and respect. But in recent years he’s heard a different story from African-American villagers.

“There’s a perception in the black community that blacks are more likely to be followed, dealt with more harshly,” he said recently. “And it’s a problem that there’s that perception, just like all over the country.”

Moyenda did run into aggressive policing in town when one night, his daughter was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation. Shortly after she was stopped, a second officer showed up, and Moyenda’s daughter called him to come to the scene. 

“She was scared,” he said, citing the presence of the second officer as adding to what seemed like intimidation. When he arrived, the officers forcefully commanded him to stay in his car and not come closer. He felt they were treating his daughter in an aggressive manner, and refused to stay in his car, although he kept what he hoped was a non-threatening distance.

“I said, ‘I’ll just stand here so she can see me,’” Moyenda said. Finally, the officers moved on.

Due to that experience, to the perceptions he’s heard from local blacks, and to the national conversation around police shootings of black men, Moyenda is extremely cautious when he drives at night in the village. He makes sure his lights are all operating and drives the speed limit. He keeps in his car a phone with a voice recorder that he can flip on quickly if he is stopped by police.

“There’s an extra layer of fear,” he said. “Especially now, with the new administration and the increase in hate crimes. It feels like any moment I could be confronted, could lose my life.”

Mixed experiences

In this sixth article in the News series, “People and Police,” the News is focusing on the relationship between local police and the village’s African-American community. It’s a relationship that has become increasingly fraught, especially as turnover in the local department has accelerated in recent years, with ramifications especially for young blacks. 

In his former capacity as principal of Yellow Springs High School and current capacity as organizer of the 365 Project and Young People of Color, John Gudgel has heard many stories of local police treating black youth in a manner that they find uncomfortable.

“I often have heard black males state that they feel profiled by local officers ‘who did not know them,’ in short these students stated that the officers who know them did not pose a problem to the same degree as newer officers. Of late and what has been disconcerting is that black females … have shared with me that they have been profiled or pulled over by police (again the newer officers) for what they feel are hidden reasons.”

“Sadly, because of their youth, this fear of police has become the norm rather than the exception,” Gudgel wrote in an email. “Sadly, each of these students had a story to tell.”

A young African-American man who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retribution stated that he’s also felt a changed atmosphere since his growing up years, when police in Yellow Springs seemed low-key and friendly. In more recent years, he has frequently been pulled over, followed or stopped when he’s innocently walking.

“I’ve been profiled,” he said.

Yet he also believes that “it’s a nuanced situation,” and that in the past two or three years police have simply been more aggressive to all villagers, not just blacks.

Several of the above incidents revolve around traffic stops for small violations, speeding perhaps, or a burned-out light, situations that might seem minor to white citizens. Yet around the country in the past several years police violence toward blacks often began with this sort of traffic stop that then spiraled out of control and sometimes ended with the fatal shooting of blacks.

“I’ve seen too many examples of regular traffic stops gone bad,” said Jessica Thomas, a local African-American high school teacher, explaining why she feels very, very cautious when driving at night, even in Yellow Springs.

Shonda Sneed has memorized a list of dos and don’ts of recommended behavior for African-American citizens stopped by the police. The actions include keeping your hands on the steering wheel, not making any sudden moves and keeping one hand on the wheel if you have to reach for your license, among others. She recites the instructions from memory.

“This is what I’m teaching my young people,” she said.

But as well as feelings of fear and trepidation, many black villagers also cite positive experiences with local police, or at least with some officers. 

“I love a few people from the department because they are always in the community trying to make things better,” Amani Wagner wrote. “Like Mr. Meister, Ms. Naomi [Watson} and currently Chief Carlson. I love to see police officers in the community because it really does make a big difference in children’s lives.”

Just this week, Shonda Sneed called police when her mother fell and she needed help getting her up. The responding officer, Jeff Beam, was kind, patient and respectful, she said in a later interview, and she was so impressed that she called Chief Carlson to tell him.

“That’s the kind of policing we want,” she said of Beam.

Nuance definitely plays a role in the perceptions of Pastor Bill Randolph, the pastor of the First Baptist Church and a member of the Justice System Task Force, or JSTF. Randolph brings to the conversation his own background as a Cedarville University safety officer for 25 years. When citizens, including black citizens, interact with police, they have to take responsibility for their own behavior, Randolph believes.

“There has to be understanding on both sides,” he said. “When an officer puts on a uniform, he’s stepping into a high-stress job. There might be less stress in Yellow Springs, but there’s still stress,” he said.

Randolph also worries that villagers have unrealistic expectations for local officers. Having come to town in the late 1980s, the end of Jim McKee’s tenure as chief, he remembers those halcyon days. But he doesn’t think they’re coming back anytime soon.

“I knew Chief McKee, and the way policing was done then is different from how it’s done now,” he said, citing the influence of drug-related violence as only one factor that has made policing more aggressive.

When he hears from local blacks that police are profiling them, he questions what he believes is the one-sidedness of that perception.

“Here’s the thing, everyone profiles,” he said. “We make quick assessments about things. To the degree that officers profile, that’s human nature.”

Still, Randolph agrees that profiling can be deadly, and he supports more and better training for local police officers, so that in the instances when they have to make quick decisions, the officer’s training rather than his instinctive responses take over. And he believes the more that officers get to know the community, the less those instinctive decisions will be based on race or other issues of personal bias.

Another member of the Justice System Task Force, Steve McQueen, sometimes feels out of step with other young adult blacks in Yellow Springs for a different reason. While several years ago he felt that local officers were profiling him, he hasn’t had that experience in recent years. And having grown up in New Jersey and visited frequently in inner-city Philadelphia, he knows how aggressive and hostile urban police can be. 

“I don’t think people know how good they have it here,” he said in a recent interview.

While McQueen doesn’t see racial profiling as a significant current problem, he does see many ways in which local police could do their jobs better.

“To me, saying the problem with the YSPD is racism ignores other problems. At this point there are so many things wrong that the issue of race barely stands out,” he said.

Policing challenges

In an interview last week, Interim Police Chief Brian Carlson responded to reports that some village African Americans feel they have been racially profiled or treated harshly because of their race.

“I can’t say those things do or don’t happen,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be that way.”

Carlson encourages African-American villagers to let him know about troubling encounters with police. 

“I have an open door, I want to hear people’s stories,” he said. “I can’t know about incidents like this unless people tell me.”

The department recently complied with a request from John Hempfling of the JSTF to share data on all citations for misdemeanors and minor misdemeanors from 2010 to October 2016, in order to analyze the data, partly to examine any police profiling trends.

“This is part of looking at the department’s current practices, which includes what are police writing citations for, and are people of color more likely to be cited,” Hempfling said.

Hempfling completed an analysis of the data this week, stating that the figures will be sent to the Wright State University Statistical Consulting Center for further analysis.

The figures indicate that 11,455 tickets in all were issued in the six-year period, to 7,443 individuals, with 83.5 percent of the tickets issued to whites and 14.77 percent issued to blacks. However, white individuals received 81 percent of the total, while blacks received 17 percent, indicating that blacks received more multiple tickets than did whites. 

In that time, 2,486 tickets were issued to Yellow Springs residents, with 82 percent of the recipients white villagers and 14.8 percent black. However. white villagers received 78.9 percent of the tickets, while blacks received 17.9 percent, again showing more multiple tickets going to blacks. According to the U.S. Census in 2010, blacks make up about 12 percent of village residents, with an additional 7 percent of villagers identifying as multi-racial.

 It is too soon to comment on the data, Hempfling said.

In a new development since taking office, Carlson said he will be reviewing the citation statistics, including racial information, on a weekly basis.

National statistics show that racial profiling is real and often deadly. 

In 2015, a New York Times analysis of police shootings showed that blacks were two and a half times more likely than whites to be shot by police. Blacks accounted for almost 32 percent of police-shooting deaths, while African Americans make up only 13 percent of the national population.

The Washington Post has begun compiling statistics on police shootings, which previously had not been reliably tracked. In 2015, about a quarter of the 990 people shot by police were black, far higher than their share of the population, while about half were whites, a number significantly lower than their population share of 72 percent.

In recent years, the national conversation around the police shootings of blacks has sparked interest in implicit bias, the instinctive responses all people have to others based on factors like race, gender or age.

“Implicit bias simply refers to our unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect our behavior and unfavorable assessments, often without our awareness or intentional control,” according to a recent document from the JSTF. 

Instinctive reactions are especially critical to understand, and counteract, when police officers, who are carrying guns, have to make split second decisions that critically affect a citizen’s life. In recent years, the State Attorney General’s office has added a few hours of implicit bias training to officers’ required continuing education.

“This is an improvement from before but not really adequate,” said Louise Smith of the 365 Project in an email. “It would be great to see our department go above and beyond these minimal requirements to something that is out in front.”

In its first recommendations to Village Council regarding local police two weeks ago, the JSTF urged Council to direct the police to ensure that local police receive “complete Implicit Bias training” by January of next year.

Carlson said he welcomes the recommendation.

“It’s really new in law enforcement,” he said of the training. 

The group also suggested several venues for the training, including Fair and Impartial Policing, a program often used by the U.S. Department of Justice. The JSTF also recommended that an implementation team be formed to help facilitate the follow-through on this suggestion.

Last week, Chief Carlson said he has already made plans to bring to town Keane Toney of Toney Police Consulting, an Akron-area firm that specializes in implicit bias training. A date for the training has not yet been set.

That initial program will likely be followed up by additional training, according to Carlson.

“It’s a start,” he said.

Another component of creating a department sensitive to the needs of African-American villagers is having a department that reflects the diversity of the community. The department does have officers of color, acording to Carlson, including Luciana Lieff, who is Brazilian, Naomi Watson, who has Puerto Rican heritage, and Carlson himself, whose mother is Syrian. However, there are currently no African Americans among the department’s full-time staff.

“Would I love a more diverse department? Absolutely,” Carlson said.

A challenge is that, especially since the national conversation on police profiling of blacks has gained traction, fewer blacks have gone into law enforcement, according to Pastor Randolph.

“When we were growing up and people asked what we wanted to be, we’d say a doctor or police officer,” he said. “You don’t hear that anymore. You don’t find many young African American males going into law enforcement.”

When former Police Chief John Grote led the department from 2005 to 2012, he attempted to follow longtime Chief Jim McKee’s maxim that it’s important to have a department that looks like the community.

“But it was always hard making that happen,” he said. “I had to recruit to get people of color, so every cop face wasn’t a middle-aged white guy.”

To do so, Grote contacted the heads of area training programs, such as the Greene County and Sinclair College police academies, to find promising young African American officers. He even tried to steal a bright, engaging young female African-American vet tech from his wife’s veterinary practice, bringing the young woman to ride with local officers when she expressed an interest in law enforcement.

“But we lost her to law school,” he said.

The local department did have one African-American officer, Gerry Greene, during Grote’s tenure, but, he said, “it wasn’t enough.”

Grote was also well aware of the reality of racial profiling, and believes that “one or two” of the officers under him was guilty of profiling blacks.

“It’s definitely a factor” in policing, he said. “You see what’s happening in Chicago, St. Louis, it happens way too often.”

For most of his tenure as chief, Grote had to figure out how to deal with the problem of implicit bias on his own, as the national awareness on the topic hadn’t begun. Explicit racism, that which is spoken out loud, is far easier to address, he said, because it’s obvious, but implicit racism is far more subtle, as even the officer himself may not be aware of the problem. To help him understand the problem, he reached out to a Wright State University psychologist, who offered advice.

“It’s deep,” Grote said of implicit bias. “It’s under the skin.”

Addressing implicit bias

Keane Toney has segued from a 30-year career in policing to a starting his own consulting business, Toney Policing Consulting, aimed at addressing implicit bias and diversity issues. Although a date has not yet been set, Toney has been hired to give his program to Yellow Springs officers.

The program is essentially an hour and a half presentation based on his personal experiences as a black man and a police officer, he said. 

Initially, his goal is to help officers become aware that they have biases. 

“You can’t fix a flat tire until you admit that you have it,” he said.

But Toney tries to promote that awareness in a non-threatening atmosphere.

“There’s some self reflection. Our biases are so personal, you may not know you have them,” he said. But it’s only after becoming aware of a bias that an officer can see how it may be affecting his interactions. 

“It’s okay to have biases, but it’s not okay to let bias interfere with your job,” he said.

Since starting his business five years ago, Toney has worked with 10 to 13 law enforcement departments, including the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department, whose employees recommended him to Chief Carlson. The local department will pay $900 for the talk that he gives. Toney said he has had no special training in implicit bias, and mainly brings to the topic his own experience.

In the small city of Olympia, Washington, all police officers completed training in implicit bias about a year ago, according to Deputy Chief Aaron Jelcick in an interview last week.

The implicit bias training was one of two new trainings (the other is Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT) urged on the department by an ad hoc citizens group after two black men were shot by an Olympia officer two years ago. The incident sparked outrage from citizens, according to the May 21, 2016, Olympian, and the department accelerated reform efforts that had already begun.

In Olympia, the department sent three officers to be trained in Fair and Impartial Policing, the national program used by the DOJ. The trainers then returned to the department to put all staff members through the eight-hour training. The FIP program included videos and analysis of videos, plus small group discussions, according to Jelcick.

“People were engaged the whole time,” he said.

After only a year, it’s hard to tell how much of an impact the training had, Jelcick said. But officers’ response was mainly positive, and many stated they had been challenged to think about ways they interact that they’d never thought about before.

One clear effect is officers realizing the importance of having positive interactions with all citizens.

“I can tell you that the officers overwhelmingly, truly, are starting to put together the relationship between their day-to-day interactions and a crisis down the road,” he said. “It’s like putting money in the bank that you may need to draw out later.”

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