A talk on race and policing Sunday morning aired some community suspicion but focused on calls for mutual understanding.
The Universal Light Christian Center on Napier Avenue hosted a panel discussion dubbed “Our Lives Matter,” featuring Henderson Carswell, a colonel in the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office.
Racial tension has emerged as a major theme in nationwide protests about the recent deaths of several unarmed black males at the hands of white police, who have thus far suffered few penalties. Carswell, who is black, noted that like Macon-Bibb County as a whole, the sheriff’s office is roughly evenly split between black and white. Thus odds are good that in any encounter with multiple officers, one or more will be of the same race as the person under scrutiny.
“That doesn’t mean that everyone does it right, but when it’s not done right, we want to know so we can try and fix the problem,” he said. Carswell was interim chief of the Macon Police Department for seven months, until its merger with the sheriff’s office. He is also pastor of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church.
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About 60 people turned out at the mostly black church for the post-service discussion. In announcing the event, ULCC Pastor Gail Tolbert Smith referred to the July death of 43-year-old Eric Garner in New York City; the August shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and the November shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Brown in Cleveland, Ohio. All three died after brief and controversial encounters with white officers.
The panel discussion was arranged “to have an honest and focused dialogue on these issues and their impact upon our community.”
Joining Carswell on the panel were Cpl. Jason Kellum of the sheriff’s office; the Rev. Ronnie Anderson; and ULCC member Mary Ann Jefferson, who said she was convicted on drug charges in 1996, but now runs her own business and speaks in alternative schools about her experiences.
Moderators Chanelle Sweet and Jimmy Jackson started off by showing news reports on the 1992 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles and the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his house.
Carswell said there must be mutual understanding between law enforcement and citizens. Each should know what to expect from the other, and deputies are being trained to listen to people’s explanations, he said. In any encounter, sheriff’s office policy requires deputies to identify themselves and say why someone is being detained, Carswell said.
Anderson said he understands public wariness of police; about 25 years ago his father was arrested for standing in his own yard in Unionville, asking about a nearby arrest, he said. Now Anderson said he teaches his own family to show their hands to police and demonstrate that they’re not threatening, he said.
Kellum, who is white, said his rule for himself and his subordinates is to always be conscious of how their actions are perceived, even in tense situations.
“You treat people like they’re your mother. You have training, knowledge and experience -- use it,” he said.
But part of the problem, said Sabina Alexander, is that often people are stopped for “driving while black,” rather than a specific offense. Alexander, a Bibb County schoolteacher, said she has had that experience several times; in Henry County, she was pulled over while her children were in the car and brusquely asked “What are you doing here and where are you going?”
She wasn’t arrested, but after Alexander told the officer she didn’t trust police, he replied “only a criminal would say that,” Alexander said.
She said the Henry County officer’s superior apologized to her. But she’s worried that her own 16-year-old son, who just got his driver’s license, may be nervous or unsure how to handle himself if stopped, she said.
Alexander said she doesn’t regularly attend ULCC, but heard of the event Sunday morning and wanted to join the debate.
Kellum and Carswell both urged anyone with such an experience locally to report it to those who “police the police.”
Carswell said the sheriff’s Office of Professional Standards has different investigators and is “much more thorough” than Internal Affairs of the former Macon police.
Deputies have had recent training on racial profiling and other issues, he said.
“I think you’ll see an improvement,” Carswell said. Anytime deputies have a physical altercation, handcuff someone or use pepper spray, they have to file a report, he said.
“I review every one of them,” Carswell said.
Clarence Rozier said many encounters with police aren’t driven by racial profiling so much as “appearance profiling.” It’s often black officers who assume that someone must be a criminal because of their clothing, he said.
Rozier said last he was stopped last year while outside a birthday party; he suspects it’s because he was wearing basketball shorts.
“You look like a drug dealer. Where are the drugs at?” Rozier said an officer told him before putting him in handcuffs. He said police “roughed up” one of his cousins, while another fled to avoid it; and Rozier himself was locked up on an open-container charge, though he said there wasn’t an open container of alcohol around.
Jefferson asked Kellum what is considered “probable cause” to search a vehicle for drugs. A search can be consensual, but to justify an unwilling search an officer must have an “alert” from a police dog, smell drugs himself, or see them in view, Kellum replied.
“Those are the only three,” he said.
Jefferson asked if she could refuse a search request in the absence of those criteria.
“That’s your right,” Kellum said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.