Recent fatal police shootings of 2 African American men, followed by violent retaliation by some against officers in Dallas & Baton Rouge has the nation on edge.
Black communities and law enforcement are struggling to find peace, unity, understanding, and trust with each other in cities affected by violence, even here in Arkansas:
“We already have a target," said Keithston Page. "Not only being Black, but being a man, period, in this White man’s world."
Page and his wife live in Jonesboro and are students in Arkansas State University’s Graduate Program. Page recalled an incident in 2013 where he was harassed and racially profiled by Jonesboro police officers. It happened after dropping off his sister at a local restaurant.
“Once I got into the intersection, I got pulled over," Page explains. "I was thinking, 'maybe I did something wrong.'" He gets out of the car and is approached by a White police officer with his hands on his holster.
The officers stopped him because his car fit the description of another vehicle they were looking for in connection to another case. The White officer's partner, who was Black, was telling him that they stopped the wrong car.
Page and the Black officer tried to explain to the White officer he was the wrong person.
“The white officer kept saying this is the same black car with the same black guy in it," Page said. The officer also said that the suspect they were looking for had dreadlocks, in which Page did not have.
Page said in light of recent events, he never really paid attention to what happened to him until now.
“Being profiled like that, it says something about humanity. How they see us as not even human beings." said Page. "It's like we're animals, just because we have dreads, or a fro, or cornrows, or whatever. We could have a whole fade; they just see us in a different manner. I have 3 degrees. [I've] never been in trouble. [I] don't have a criminal record. I have a past. I don’t have a record”
Page said African American men were becoming “endangered”. The word “endangered” to describe the relationship between black men and law enforcement was also used by Edmond Davis, a history instructor at Arkansas Baptist College, a historically Black college in Little Rock.
“There’s officers of the law, or 'People with Badges' that are killing African American males," Davis explains. "We're definitely highly endangered. So, we have to act better and be a whole lot smarter.”
Davis also runs a non-profit organization called “Aviate Through Knowledge,” which informs minorities about social best practices in handling certain situations such as being approached by law enforcement. Davis recalled an incident last year in which he had to use those best practices. Speeding to make a speaking engagement at Arkansas Technical College in Russellville, he was pulled over by an officer.
Davis kept both hands on the steering wheel while talking to the officer. The officer asked him why he was speeding.
"Officer, I'm sorry. I have to give a speech. Please forgive me," Davis told the officer.
"No problem," the officer replied. "Let me see your license, registration, and insurance."
Before removing his hands, he asked the officer for permission to grab his information.
After getting permission, Davis slowly grabbed his license and registration from the glove compartment to give to officer; announcing his every move to show the officer that he wasn’t a threat. When the officer received his information, he noticed that Davis had a federal license to carry a gun. The officer asked Davis if he had his gun on him. Remembering his training, Davis simply told the officer “no.” However, he recalls what he was thinking at the time.
“He said that to me," Davis said, "but my response in my head was: 'Why would you ask me that question, man? I just told you I'm going to speak to about a thousand college students. Why would I bring a pistol to a college. '"
He said he wouldn't say that to the officer out loud because it would've delayed his trip or get him into more trouble. "A lot of times, people just say what's on their minds. They call it 'keepin' it real,'" Davis explains. "Sometimes, 'keepin' it real' goes bad. So, it's just wise to not always say what’s on your mind.”
Davis walked away with a warning and a confirmation that his training worked. While Davis had a positive experience in his encounter with law enforcement, Page’s negative encounter coupled with the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota brought a concern that is also echoed by some in the Black community.
“What do we tell our young boys? Our Sons? Our cousins? Our nephews," Page said."'Comply with the Police. Do what they tell you to do.' [Castile] was giving his identification to them and he got shot in cold blood. So what do you expect for us to do? [If] we comply with you, we get shot."
Sgt. Cassie Brandon is the Jonesboro Police Department’s Community Outreach and Recruiting Officer. She said that in the moment, officers ask for compliance.
"If we give an order, there's a very high likelihood that we know what we're talking about," Sgt. Brandon explains. "We expect people to do whatever we're telling them to do so we can resolve whatever situation that we’re dealing with.”
Sgt. Brandon explains that asking people to comply keeps everyone in the situation safe and it makes the process move a whole lot smoother.
“That's what we prefer," Sgt. Brandon said. "I can tell you, I don't wake up in the morning--and I don't know any officer that does-- that’s lookin’ for a fight.”
She says people who feel like they have been unfairly treated by officers can deal with that situation after it is over. Sgt. Brandon said the police department has been making strides to become trusting and transparent, while at the same time being cautious in a contentious time for officers.
“We train our officers, and I was trained, to treat people professionally with respect," said Sgt. Brandon, "but, to also be vigilant and make sure that the people you're dealing with aren't wanting to hurt you. That's always a threat in law enforcement that we have to be aware of.”
The department tries to open the line of communication by offering a citizen police academy and having recruitment fairs with a heavy emphasis on asking minorities to join the force. Officers also cooperated in a peaceful march which took place in Jonesboro over the weekend with members of the African American community. Both groups were able to share their concerns with each other and receive best practice advice for dealing with one another.
Aviate Through Knowledge, Davis’ organization, uses a different approach to improve the line of communication between law enforcement & minorities. ATK has a traveling interactive lecture series which provides tips for how to respond to police responsibly. He calls them the “Safety Advocacy Tips” or the “21st Century SATs.”
"I want them to be well seasoned," said Davis. "That way we can help people make better decisions when they come in contact with anyone in uniform or anyone in plain clothes that may be an officer of the law."
In spite of his experience, Page also wants to help improve relations between the community and police. He’s working on a campaign called #changethebeat. He said it is time to change the way all sides approach each other and that unity should be the end result. Page said that should come in the form of a community gathering in Jonesboro to promote unity and fellowship.
“We appreciate them," Page said. "We also want to let them know that we know that y'all are doing a good job, a damn good job. But, the thing is we’ve got to have y'all's trust."
Will all of these initiatives really help improve trust and unity? Only time will tell. And as the old saying goes, “time heals all wounds.”