In a year that has seen tensions boil over around the nation following the death of George Floyd in police custody, local students have taken their stands in protest with the support of area law enforcement. The discussions continued July 31 with a student-led town hall at Southern Ground Amphitheater dubbed “Community Conversation About Policing and Race.”
A trio of students were the driving force behind the town hall. Starr’s Mill alum and current Texas A&M student Tori Davis served as moderator, Starr’s Mill alum Douglass Morris II was the emcee, and current McIntosh High student Kaitlyn Hood, who organized a march in Peachtree City earlier this summer, served as announcer.
They assembled the top figures in local law enforcement (Sheriff Barry Babb, Peachtree City Police Dept. Chief Janet Moon, Fayetteville PD Chief Scott Gray, and Tyrone PD Chief Randy Mundy), along with Fayetteville Mayor Ed Johnson, civil rights attorney Wayne Kendall, and District Attorney Marie Broder, for what promised to broach uncomfortable but important discussions.
“We are not here to bash law enforcement, nor will we tolerate that, but this is a space to discuss how our law enforcement agencies and citizens can work together through respect and common goals,” said Morris in his introduction. “It is important to recognize that what we call our Fayette County ‘bubble,’ our good community, is not a shield against problems, nor is it immune to social and racial injustice. If everyone is not treated equitably in society then we are not an equitable society.”
Davis urged the participants and the audience to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
“This conversation is not easy to have, but it is necessary,” she said. “Let us all be challenged with the pursuit of building a stronger community.”
Mayor Johnson shared her sentiments.
“I have some sincere beliefs that if we’re going to make some change, no matter where it is and what kind of change you’re looking for, you cannot have understanding unless you have dialogue. You cannot have reconciliation unless you have conversation.”
DA Broder promised there was an eagerness for openness.
“The conversations that we will have tonight must happen,” she said. “They are vital, they are important, and these law enforcement leaders that you will hear from work so very hard to keep you safe while fighting against injustice.”
The town hall centered around four key topics: Recognizing race in policing, accountability measures and transparency, officer policy and misconduct, and Fayette County for the future.
Accountability is a vital part of policing. Chief Gray recounted a recent dismissal of an officer who was accused of unfairly targeting African-Americans for traffic stops. His fellow officers reported him, and the department’s monthly bias-based numbers backed up their concern, showing that 90 percent of the officer’s stops involved African-Americans, and he was let go.
Likewise, Gray pointed out the importance of officers holding each other responsible on matters of excessive force and racial bias.
“It’s just as bad if they remain silent.”
Chief Moon said that policies on anti-racism in policing must be more than just theory.
“We can write the best policies in the world, but if you don’t train on them and if you don’t enforce them and we don’t reenforce them, they’re not as good as the paper they’re written on.”
The agencies present noted that their teams sought to represent the diversity of their communities. Sheriff Babb said that his department includes 33 percent minorities, which is in line with the makeup of the county itself. Chief Gray expressed pride in the makeup of his team. Of his 62 employees, 45 are white, 14 are black, two are Hispanic, and one is Asian.
“What I’m most proud of is that in our supervisory ranks and leadership ranks we are a very diverse organization,” said Gray.
There was enthusiasm for building greater connections with minorities in the community.
Chief Mundy noted that their regular “Coffee with a Cop” program is just one way they try to engage all residents in Tyrone.
“That’s where we get to meet you guys and get to know each other on a first name basis and hear your concerns and your ideas,” he said. “That’s very important to us in Tyrone.”
Chief Gray encouraged residents to get involved in their community by attending government meetings, police academies, and law enforcement-sponsored gatherings.
“It starts with all of us,” he said. “That shows that we’re all here and we’re all in this together. You have to get involved.”
Both Chief Mundy and Kendall agreed that confrontation is not the answer if you disagree with a traffic stop.
“If you disagree with what the officer said you did, that is not the time, that is what court is for,” Mundy said. “If you feel the officer was disrespectful, come see us as soon as you can.”
“The best thing a citizen can do is comply with the officer,” said Kendall, noting that citizens have a responsibility just like officers, advising to comply and not be combative. “The time to debate what the police officer is charging you with or what he claims you did illegally is not out on the side of the road.”
On defunding police, Sheriff Babb questioned how feasible it would be to send social workers into many situations. He recounted a recent incident where a man at Kenwood Park was hitting himself in the head with a hammer with many other people around. The man retreated to his car and only communicated with a black female officer who helped talk him into surrendering. He was transported to the hospital to get help, and no chargers were filed.
“I don’t know how unarmed social workers would be able to deal with that safely,” Babb wondered.
Chief Moon reminded the audience that behind their badges, officers are also members of the community.
“The police are the public, and the public are the police. We are all together. We’re all the fabric of the community,” she said.
She said local law enforcement was honored to assist in the peaceful demonstrations that have happened across Fayette over the summer because they know we must all work together for a better, more equitable community.
“We knew our young people wanted to do something because they care, and we, as the chiefs and the Sheriff, stood behind them and we stood with them.”
In his opening remarks, Morris put a poignant bow on the entire evening.
“This town hall was born from love for this community, and, because we love it, we must challenge ourselves to address issues of which we may be wary so that we can grow together.”
The town hall was sponsored by Fayette FACTOR, in cooperation with the city of Fayetteville. To view the full town hall, visit Fayette FACTOR on Facebook.