By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
The first question set off a heated two-hour candid conversation on race and policing. A lot of it was captured on video, but this exchange was not at a traffic light or on a street where nobody was watching.
“Why does the police talk down to us?” said the Black woman from Gary. She said one officer pointed a gun at her after she reached for her purse to retrieve her driver’s license during a traffic stop.
She was among about 200 people who attended a community forum about race and policing at the Genesis Convention Center on Aug. 30. Residents traveled from Gary, Chicago and other Midwestern cities to chime in on a hot issue that has divided America in recent years as police continue to kill Blacks while being accused of racial profiling and brutality.
After the television cameras stop rolling and the host briefly left the stage, the majority of the audience remained glued to their seats for the second hour. It turned out to be a heated, hour-long conversation that left emotions simmering. The crowd left with unanswered questions to a problem that has torn their country apart.
As the discussion took place, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson officially moved to fire four officers involved in the Laquan McDonald case, including Jason Van Dyke, who shot the 17-year-old 16 times in October 2014. It was the latest development in a story that has kept police shootings in the news and on the minds of Blacks across the country, including Gary.
Some 31 miles away, in a packed room filled with a diverse crowd, residents watched a panel of political leaders and top police officers from various cities exchange opinions about race and policing. The panel included Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson; Gary Police Chief Larry McKinley; Troy Williams, police chief of Portage, IN; Hobart Mayor Brian Snedecor; Pastor Ray Dix II of Bethel Church’s Gary branch; and Lorrell Kilpatrick of Black Lives Matter.
Garrard McClendon, host of “Counterpoint with Garrard McClendon,” on Lakeshore Public Television, moderated the discussion, which was aired on Aug. 31. The televised portion of the discussion ran an hour long, but the entire conversation ran for nearly two hours.
During the discussion, some said they were disappointed that the panel did not include more young speakers, while others accused the panel of being unbalanced with only one activist who represented a segment of the audience who were fed up with the way police treat Blacks across the country. Kilpatrick, at times, was the minority voice on a panel that remained supportive of police officers despite recent shootings in Chicago, Baton Rouge and Minneapolis.
As part of the discussion, several members of the audience were given a microphone to ask the panel questions that ranged from police training to law enforcement policies and officials’ behavior towards Blacks.
Unlike many cities, Gary has not had controversial police shootings or cases of police brutality in recent years, but residents say the force still needs to treat its residents with respect to avoid escalating situations.
Though she largely supported police officers during the discussion, Freeman-Wilson took a softer approach to explain the importance of police in patrolling neighborhoods.
She reminded the audience to use caution when police stop them for a traffic violation.
“If you’re stopped, you have to comply, but once that episode is over, then you can challenge police in a different setting.”
That’s when Kilpatrick spoke up.
“I don’t think compliance is that simple. I’ve seen women who complied in situations where they were raped and sodomized.”
Williams blamed the media for creating anti-police sentiment. He accused the media of exaggerating the problems of police shootings around the country.
Kilpatrick disagreed saying if were not for the media, police shootings and cases of brutality would not be reported.
“I think we have to be realistic with what people are experiencing,” she said.
Chicago resident Richard David drew applause after questioning why police officers are not held accountable for shooting civilians during questionable traffic stops. He said 714 people died from police shootings last year.
“When are we going to have accountability for police officers the same way we have accountability for ordinary citizens? Until we do that, I don’t see an end to these problems.”
Snedecor acknowledged that racial biases exist in police departments. He also said such biases hurt relations between police and the communities across the country.
“Until we agree to get past these biases, we can never improve relationships,” Snedecor said.
Dix said many problems stem from violent, social behaviors at home and in neighborhoods.
In an effort to help law enforcement officials police the streets with more compassion, Dix said his church organized a basketball game between young men and plainclothes Gary police officers.
“When these kids learned that these players were police officers, they were blown away,” Dix said. “We wanted to show the officers the human side of these youth, and we wanted to show the same with these officers.”
Vanessa Allen, president and CEO of the Urban League of Northwest Indiana, said similar community discussions will be held in the future.