LIMA — Between issues of racial profiling and institutional mistrust, plenty of questions were thrown at Lima Police Department Chief Kevin Martin during a town hall on police reform held Thursday night. The answer the crowd wanted to hear, however, was also one of the most basic.
“Do you believe that systemic racism is real? And do the officers in Lima believe that systemic racism is real?” asked State Board of Education Member Linda Haycock, who sat in the audience.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think most of the officers do,” Martin said. “And to answer your question on systemic racism: Do I believe that systemic racism exists in the Lima Police Department? No, I do not. Now, I know that you’re going to disagree with that, but again, no, I don’t believe that it does. Now, with that being said, is it possible that officers may have biases that impact the way that they act? Yeah, I know I have biases, not based upon race, but I have biases, just like anybody does. And I do my best to make sure that they don’t inform my decisions or behavior.”
Organized by the newly-formed Committee on Racial Justice and Reform: A Human Rights Issue, the Thursday night event featured a question and answer forum where roughly 40 community members peppered a six-person panel — comprised of men from various backgrounds — with a wide range of questions surrounding police reform.
A number of questions regarded police procedures were posed directly to Martin, who often explained in detail how the LPD conducts hiring, investigating, biases training, preparing cases, approaching people and community policing.
The brunt of many of those conversations, however, surrounded the topic of trust and a related history of mistrust.
“Spiritually, (policing) is an organization that my ancestors were captured by. It’s hard for someone to come around and think that that’s something that’s good.” Resident Darrick Dillard said. “And when you are police officer, you feel like you’re a minority within a minority. I hear so many stories by minority police officers who feel like they’re on their own.”
There have been plenty of efforts in the past to help bridge that trust gap. Retired Firefighter Chris Jackson spoke about his prior efforts to increase minority representation in both Lima’s police department and fire department. He said he would often run into problems of born and raised minority residents being hesitant to join up for various reasons, such as lack of standard pathways to the job, historic under-representation and potential conflicting loyalties when a family member may have been arrested in the past.
Councilor Derry Glenn pushed to eliminate those problems altogether by expanding police hiring to cities outside of Lima in order to have a more immediate effect on minority representation on safety services.
Other residents used their questions to try to figure out what form police reform might take. While the topic of “defunding the police” had its moment in the national media, many of those in the audience denounced the phrase, instead asking the question of what would a police department look like if its functions were deconstructed and reformed into something that community members could better trust.
“When we look at the system itself, what does it look like for our community? Just saying ‘defund the police’ is a non-answer. But what other kinds of systems really build up trust?” Councilor Carla Thompson asked.
Attorney Jerry Pitts offered a potential solution in the better training of officers and a more receptive community. In years past, it was more common for black officers to bring white officers through historically black neighborhoods to get them to know the community better, he said. Residents were less likely to yell mistreatment when officers patrolled, Pitts said.
Other attendees pointed to community institutions as potential solutions, naming schools, churches and home life as cultural pillars that need more focus.
Dr. Willie Heggins, who is the acting chair of the committee and is the director of Heir Force Community School, said he sometimes hear children act defeated before ever having a chance.
“It’s amazing to me to hear young people, particularly around the age of 13 or 14, envision that they’re going to be a part of the justice system, not at 18, ‘I’m going to be attending University A, or University B’” Heggins said. “They don’t see the option. It breaks my heart as to why that would be the case.”
And then there were the stories residents told from experience. Multiple members of the audience spoke about how, after doing their time behind bars, they or loved ones faced a system that restricted their housing and job opportunities for decades after incarceration. Another common theme was trying to find justice after allegedly being mistreated or falsely accused by local police officers, or being outright ignored by law enforcement despite needing help. NAACP Local Chapter President Rev. Ron Fails says he has plenty of similar examples.
“The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging that it is a problem, and I’m not hearing that in this room.” Fails said. “I got a stack of complaints from people in this community — many of whom get their case dismissed. Many that get their charges dropped. Well, if they’re getting their charges dropped, then maybe it shouldn’t have been charged in the first place.”
Heggins ended the meeting by inviting those in attendance to continue the momentum of the moment by turning it into political action. His committee aims to add another 10,000 Lima residents to voter rolls by the general election deadline.
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.