By Katelyn Waltemyer, contributor
Even after Harrisonburg’s police chief has spent much of the nearly two years in the job reviewing and implementing department policies, the efforts haven’t prevented black JMU students from fearing the police.
Leeyah Jackson, a panelist at Wednesday’s Rethinking Policing and Building Community Trust virtual town hall streamed on Facebook Live, said it’s frustrating that despite the reforms, the system feels like a building where “the foundation is off.”
“It’s like putting Band-Aids on a broken house,” Jackson said as she spoke about an encounter she had with police last November while she was a JMU senior.
She was at a friend’s birthday party on Nov. 2. She said her friend did “all the right things” by obtaining a permit and following other guidelines. Then, she said, the police came to investigate a noise complaint.
Jackson’s voice trembled as she talked about what unfolded. She said the police officers treated black and white people at the party differently. The worst part, Jackson said, was after hours of waiting to be allowed to leave, she had to use the restroom. When she went, the officers made her keep the door open.
“We were left that night feeling dehumanized and alone,” Jackson said. “And of course, who are we going to tell? Because there wasn’t anyone for us to turn to.”
After Jackson finished her story, and Daerenz Lyons shared his experiences with police, the main screen switched to Eric English, the Harrisonburg Police Department’s chief, who was participating as a panelist from his office wearing his uniform.
“It’s difficult for me to hear that you felt like you had nobody to turn to,” English said. “I don’t want anybody to ever feel like you can’t turn to this police agency and report something that you feel was improper.”
Both English and Kevin Lanoue, chief of JMU’s police department, urged community members to report instances of unjust behavior by police officers. English said he can’t hold officers accountable if he isn’t aware of these situations.
More than 170 people attended Wednesday’s virtual town hall — hosted by JMU Civic and Dukes Vote — and they asked more than 200 questions in the comments section. The panel included Harrisonburg and JMU’s police chiefs and former and current black students and a JMU faculty member.
Beyond discussing personal experiences, panel member Benjamin Blankenship, a JMU psychology professor, focused on implicit bias — the idea that people’s attitudes and stereotypes affect their understanding of a particular matter.
He referred to multiple academic studies and said many police departments across the country are introducing implicit bias training. But he said it’s not clear yet how beneficial that training is.
“You can teach people about implicit bias, but if they don’t think it exists, or if they don’t care if it exists, you’re not going to see any change,” Blankenship said.
English said education on implicit bias is important because “we all have it.” He also said he believes police officers shouldn’t be the main figures responding to mental health calls.
“The last thing someone in a mental health crisis needs to see is somebody approaching them with a gun and a taser,” English said.
Blankenship said as other social services have faced cuts, more responsibilities are stacked on the shoulders of the police, who are often the first ones called to respond.
“It’s easy to see why we see declining levels of trust when we’re holding all of … this pressure and all these social expectations on them that originally were not part of the deal,” Blankenship said.
English and Lanoue both said they want to increase diversity on their respective forces.
Lanoue said his staff is 83 percent white and while he’s tried to hire more diverse officers, he said, it’s been difficult to find qualified candidates.
English said he is one of three black officers out of 105 at the Harrisonburg Police Department and wants to recruit more officers of color.
“It’s a struggle,” English said.
In an effort to increase transparency, English said the Harrisonburg Police Department’s records about officers’ use of force will become available to the public either Thursday or Friday on the city’s website. This will allow free access to events in which HPD officers have used force. He first announced that at last Friday’s protest rally downtown.
English said he wants more Harrisonburg residents to be part of the policing conversation and is in the process of forming a community relations board. This way, the public will become more involved in the policymaking process at the HPD. Two citizens also sit on the use of force review panel, which includes police leaders and officers.
“I’m going to make sure that we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that our citizens are served to the best of our ability,” English said. “And everybody’s treated equally.”
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