Voices were heard as the listening ears of law enforcement and government officials absorbed the many concerns and opinions of the residents of Jefferson County during the City of Pine Bluff Public Forum on Law Enforcement and Racial Justice.
Held at the Pine Bluff Convention Center Thursday evening and moderated by Janice Roberts, panelist listened to a room full of participates to address issues in the community when it came to police policies and race.
Panelists included Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley M. Washington, Pine Bluff Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant, Jefferson County Judge Gerald Robinson, Jefferson County Sheriff Lafayette Woods, community member Kymara Seals, and research specialist Matthew Pate.
In their opening statements, one thing that city and county leaders were in agreeance was that change needed to happen in Jefferson County.
“We have to be the change we want to see,” said Washington. “Even though we are frustrated and even though we are angry, I’ve watched the citizens of Pine Bluff turn anger into purpose because we know there has to be a positive reason for everything we do.”
Wanting to move purpose to progress, Washington said Pine Bluff was a city of progress that would continue to move in the right direction.
Sergeant expressed as the Chief of Police, he was anxiously looking forward to the discussions and see changes he could implement.
As names of victims who had lost their lives to police brutality were called out, Robinson said those incidents were necessary.
“It was necessary that it made us look in the mirror and say we are not going to take the things that has transpired in the past and present,” said Robinson. “It was necessary for each of us to take a look at ourselves as individuals and say we want to be better.”
Woods described being a law enforcement officer during these times as tense.
“In the quest of racial diversity, equality for all, we have to make sure we have the right balance between law enforcement and making sure we are also incorporating community policing,” said Woods. “We must strike that balance every time.”
Seals, the driving force behind the many community rallies and an activist for the state of Arkansas, said she wanted to make a contribution to the Pine Bluff community by making it better.
Seals, who relocated to Pine Bluff for college and never left, says after 32 years of her living there, Pine Bluff still has work to do.
“We do not want a George Floyd incident in Pine Bluff,” said Seals.
Pate, who studies police departments said the best agencies are driven by expressly stated and broadly mutually goals that reflect the community’s values.
“The best agencies look to our laws and there own policies as directives for positive actions, not just a list of things they can’t do,” said Pate.
Pate added that monitoring and taking care of police officers was vital, focusing on their wellness and mental state.
As the focus shifted from the panel to the audience, a common concern was the lack of community policing.
There has to be a relationship between the community and the police,” said Jefferson County resident, Cedric Jackson. “I shouldn’t feel threatened when I see a badge or a gun. I believe once we build a relationship with one another then we can get an understanding for one another as well.”
Willie Gordon, who has two sons, says he is constantly having conversations with them on how to respond and comply respectfully when interacting with a police officer, even when you’ve done nothing wrong.
“I tell them to make sure you got your insurance in the right place, make sure you have your hands on the steering wheel,” said Gordon.
To improve community policing, citizens expressed that officers needed to spend more time out of their cars in the neighborhoods, suggesting foot and bike patrol.
They also suggested more officers do juvenile outreach and engage more in the schools instead of relying on the School Resource Officer. Suggestions included mentoring programs, coaching and sponsoring youth sports and attending community activities.
Abuse of power was a heavy topic that citizens expressed stating law enforcement officers use intimidation and scare tactics.
A Pine Bluff resident spoke on how her son was threatened after he pulled over ahead of his friend that was stopped by an Arkansas State Trooper.
“My son was looking out for him so he stopped. Another State trooper stopped,” said Angela Boby. “The state trooper came up to him and that’s when he pulled a gun to his head and threatened to blow his brains out.”
Boby said her son called her crying over the phone on his drive back home and is now getting counseling because he has PTSD.
Another citizen spoke on an encounter with the Pine Bluff Police Department when he witnessed a white police officer that is no longer with the department, body slam a black woman.
“I immediately ran over there and we had some choice words and he told me to go back into my house and I told him I’m not going anywhere. You didn’t have to pick that girl up and body slam her on the ground like that,” said Greg Taylor who described the girl as 110 pounds.
According to Taylor, the officer took pictures of his license plates and trucks as a scare tactic.
Solutions and suggestions were presented to the panel such as protecting the identity of a witness. Citizens expressed fear of retaliation and actually witnesses being murdered.
Taylor asked for strict penalties to associate with the policies.
“Police officers, if they have hatred in their heart for a certain color of people, they are going to violate these policies all day long,” Taylor to the panel. “They have to be punished.”
A citizen representing the Latino community said police officers should be trained to speak more than one language based on where they live due to language barriers. She also suggested an Equity Committee be formed that enforces the rights of citizens.
Ryan Watley of Go Forward Pine Bluff gave an innovative way to create change by suggesting an Intelligence and Social Condition Program be establish that would partner with the police department to engage citizens and investigate the social and economical conditions of the citizen.
“Most of the citizens that police encounter or either underemployed or unemployed and don’t have an sustainable income,” said Watley who also believed due diligence in hiring will solve a lot of the cities issues. “Rethink how we get people off the streets by empowering them through economic prosperity as well as investigating their social conditions.”
In closing Sergeant said he was encouraged as he listened to the community’s concerns.
Pate said a plan must be made for the department that is wanted in the community.
“The best agencies listen to the public and respond to those things that the public identifies as important,” said Pate. “It’s a matter of priorities, goals and planning. Every bit of this is possible here in Pine Bluff with the police force that we have serving us now.”
Sergeant believes a good foundation has been made in the Pine Bluff Police Department and he will continue to make strides to build on top of that.
“On the things that we are doing here at the Pine Bluff Police Department, we are headed in the right direction,” said Sergeant. “We just have to build upon the ideas that we have and the things that we are trying to do to make our police department better and to bring back the relationships with our community.”