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Unity meeting brings law enforcement, civic leaders together to learn
Meeting set in wake of recent police shootings nationwide
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Pastor Frank Medina of Restoration Community Church talks about the meaning of unity Thursday while a panel of community leaders listen during a meeting at the Gainesville Public Safety Complex. The Gainesville Police Department and city officials met with residents to work toward preventing incidents like those in other parts of the country from happening in the Gainesville community. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Gainesville and Hall County officials met with civic and religious leaders Thursday night at the city's public safety complex for a roundtable discussion aiming for a city united.

“Unity comes from understanding,” the Rev. Stephen Samuel of St. John Baptist Church said. “Unity comes from not erasing culture, not erasing differences but rather celebrating those and recognizing the unique contributions that each person brings to this table.”

Following the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas in the past week, clergy members joined officials from the Gainesville City Council, Gainesville Police Department and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office for a series of questions on working together as a community.

Pastor Frank Medina, of Restoration Community Church in Gainesville, said our actions will influence the youth to come together and show love to one another.

“Love surpasses any color, any race, any age or any language barrier,” he said.

The Rev. Rose Johnson of the Newtown Florist Club said the national events seen in recent weeks  “trigger psychological and emotional events in the African-American community.”

“One of the major problems that we have in our community, especially as it relates to law enforcement, is this whole history of historical harms,” she said.

When working together, Johnson said all sides must work to take care of the people in our community.

Gainesville City Councilman Sam Couvillon said hurt feelings cannot halt serious discussions about issues facing the community.

“When somebody says something that you don’t agree with, you challenge them on it but you don’t get offended,” he said. “That’s how we’re gonna grow.”

In the May 24 primary, Hall County saw a 16 percent voter turnout. Hall County Elections Director Charlotte Sosebee encouraged people to get more involved in local politics to enact change.

“These are the people who are making our laws,” Sosebee said of the local candidate races. “These are the people that we can pick up the phone and call on a normal day.”

Many of the questions directed at law enforcement focused on interactions with police as pertaining to protesting and traffic stops.

City officials and others stressed having a conversation about protest plans to make sure all parties stay safe.

“We’d much rather have more officers than needed than get out there and not have enough,” Sheriff’s Office Maj. Kevin Head said.

Gainesville Deputy Chief Jay Parrish said a driver “will never win an argument of who is right or wrong on the side of the road,” encouraging people to take the disagreement to the appropriate court of law.

An audience member stood and asked Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin about the representation of the African-American community in the city’s police.

Martin said she has seen low application rates from locals, seeing many more from Atlanta-area officers seeking a smaller call volume.

“They know the stores, they know the businesses, but I have very low applicants from Gainesville/Hall County as a whole,” she said.

According to the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, the department had five African-American sworn officers and eight Hispanic officers in a department of 93 sworn officers.

In its previous assessment in 2013, there were six African-American sworn officers and two Hispanic officers in a department of 96 sworn officers.

Gainesville has a 15 percent African-American community and a 42 percent Hispanic community, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures.

Calling Gainesville “a progressive city,” Councilwoman Barbara Brooks said the city has started on a project on surveying the more than 1,100 unmarked graves in Alta Vista cemetery.

Brooks said the project will “make sure honor and dignity are brought to the people whose names we don’t know.”

Regional events