The key to preventing deaths like those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner is improving the relationship between police officers and the community they serve.
That was the message of a public forum Thursday at the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus.
The forum was hosted by the student organization Diplomats for Diversity and included a panel of experts who discussed racial bias in police policy and the legal system.
“I think without a doubt this racial bias exists,” said Jeremy Sharp, student and president of the North Georgia chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “I feel like our minority populations make up an unfair and sizable portion of our jail inmate populations.”
Sharp said he believes socioeconomic conditions play a role in these statistics. People who cannot afford proper representation are often mistreated by the legal system, he said.
Fellow panelist Catherine Bernard, an Atlanta-based public defender, agreed, but said racial bias is actually not the issue that should concern this country the most.
“I think what’s important to note is this isn’t a function of the judges or the prosecutors or police officers being some sort of horrible, bigoted racists,” Bernard said. “These are the kind of unconscious biases that seep into everyday interactions. The real problem is we have a system of overcriminalization and militarization that provides for too many people to be in court in the first place.”
Bernard said it is important to acknowledge there are racial issues in the criminal justice system, but accusing people of being racist doesn’t fix the problem.
“I think the answer is to focus on the issues that affect all of us,” she said. “... Let’s make that our focus rather than the racial disparity. That’s a symptom, not the cause of the problem.”
Panelist and Deputy Chief Clifford Poole, with the North Georgia Police Department and 30 years of law enforcement experience, disagreed with his fellow panelists about the existence of racial bias in police policy. He said most police departments, including those he’s worked for, have policies against racial discrimination.
Marshall Rancifer, community activist and director of outreach for Someone Cares Inc. of Atlanta, said the solution to the problem is a spirit of collaboration between the community and law enforcement. He said it’s not fair to point fingers one way, when the responsibility lies on both sides.
The panelists were asked to explain their opinions on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases and how they relate to police and community relations across the nation.
Both Poole and Sharp said media interpretation can skew the way people view such cases.
“You don’t hear about the good,” Poole said. “You hear about the bad.”
Bernard said the Michael Brown case should not have received the attention it did, because it had too many
ambiguities. She said focusing on such cases takes the spotlight away from cases of clear police brutality.
Rancifer agreed, and said the violent protests in Ferguson also distracted from the issue of police brutality.
“I am a spirited activist, but I believe in nonviolent activism,” Rancifer said. “Rioting and burning buildings, stuff like that takes it way past what it should be.”
Poole said there are tangible ways for the community to better understand how law enforcement works. He encouraged anyone interested to look into participating in a citizens’ police academy.
Both Poole and Bernard said there are ways residents can hold police more accountable for their actions.
“If you have a bad experience, you have the right to get the officer’s name and badge number ...,” Poole said. “If you feel like an officer was rude or unprofessional to you, you have the right to file a citizen’s complaint, and follow up on that complaint to see why you were mistreated.”
Paul Glaze, student and member of Diplomats for Diversity, said events like the forum have a tendency to generate unwarranted animosity. He said he was pleased with the response from the audience and the proactive discussion with the panel.
The purpose and message of the event was never of “hate toward the police,” Glaze said.
“I don’t hate my real estate agent because of Fannie Mae,” he said. “I don’t hate teachers because of No Child Left Behind. And I would like to note that I’ve never had anything less than an incredibly courteous experience with any of the police officers in our town or on our campus.”