An event bringing together community members with law enforcement was interrupted Thursday night when a man stood up and grabbed a backpack, prompting Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin and other law officers to jump up from the table.
Following nearly two hours of community discussion on racial profiling at St. Paul United Methodist Church, the white man, who later refused to give his name to The Times, said to the panel of law enforcement, “Don’t I look out of place?”
“You looked out of place since you walked in the door,” said Brad Parks, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Assistant Special Agent in Charge for Region 8.
Quintus Harrison, project director for Newtown Florist Club’s Criminal Justice Reform Project, repeatedly denied any prior involvement or knowledge of the man’s actions.
Before the man stood up with his backpack, Harrison discussed the shootings in Charleston, S.C., where a white man allegedly sat among the pews for an hour before opening fire, killing nine people June 17.
“The African-Americans, they were so peaceful, they were so naive,” Harrison said. “They didn’t know what was about to happen to them. And the same thing that happened to them could have just happened to y’all.”
Harrison motioned for the man to stand up, saying no one in law enforcement said anything about the man’s behavior when he walked in with a backpack.
Multiple law enforcement officers said they were texting about the man since his arrival at the church Thursday evening. Martin requested a brief break, as she said she wanted to talk to the man.
Parks continued after the man sat down about how issues with law enforcement must be handled through open communication.
“We can’t do it if you sit in rooms and talk about it amongst yourselves and you just get mad,” Parks said.
The preceding two hours of discussion covered complaints and explanations related to law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Representatives from Gainesville Police, Hall County Sheriff’s Office, Oakwood Police, Flowery Branch Police, University of North Georgia Police and the Hall County Courthouse were present.
A large focus of the night centered around criminal trespassing charges and the loitering ordinance passed by the Gainesville City Council.
Terry Brownlee, who coaches youth basketball, told the panel and members of city council about one of his kids who was charged with criminal trespassing on Atlanta Street.
The incident, Brownlee said, was after the kid refused the officer’s search of his bookbag while staying with a friend who lives on Atlanta Street.
Brownlee said the end result was a $25 fine and a 30-minute class.
“I thought he shouldn’t been charged for nothing, because he didn’t do nothing,” Brownlee said.
Myrtle Figueras, responding to Brownlee, said how she would have handled the situation.
“I would have opened the bookbag,” Figueras said.
“Why?” called out multiple audience members.
“Because the officer said it.”
Figueras said she pushed for the loitering ordinance to make sure to protect young children from felonious activity near Atlanta Street.
“We’ve got to get our people out of the street, off the corner of Atlanta Street,” she said.
One speaker addressed the panel about being stopped almost night after night going to Peppers Market from the same officer asking for identification. Leroy Ervin said he was cited for criminal trespassing walking on the sidewalk and believes some officers were “overusing their power.”
In 2015, Martin said four criminal trespassing arrests and two loitering arrests were made near Atlanta Street; none of the arrested people, Martin said, had an Atlanta Street address.
“They’re not going to create trouble in their own backyard,” Martin said.
The way to handle complaints, each police chief said, has been body cameras. Flowery Branch Police Chief David Spillers said not using the cameras comes at a price and repeated violation means “that price is going to be their position.”