Search for answers
Residents meet to discuss race and police
“I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do,” Leslie Sexton told the mostly white audience at a July 14 NAACP meeting in Reno.
She had become inured to killing, she said, but the Philando Castile and Alton Sterling killings revived her horror. She wasn’t the only one searching for a way to deal with her feelings.
“I felt discouraged and hopeless last week and I wanted to do something really practical for my fellow citizens,” said Laura Freed. “I wanted to do something really practical … for my fellow citizens.”
So she decided to volunteer for the local police advisory board—only to discover there isn’t one. To city councilmembers, the county sheriff and Reno police chief who were seated in the audience, she called attention to Nevada Revised Statute 289.380, which provides for creation of a “review board by ordinance to advise the governing body on issues concerning peace officers, school police officers, constables and deputies of constables within the city or county.”
She also said she sought information from an unnamed Reno city councilmember about whether local police have body cameras. She said she was given a “polite brush-off. … I wanted a straight answer to that question, and I didn’t get one.”
Councilmembers Naomi Duerr and David Bobzien, seated in the front row, then spoke. Bobzien said since the Castile/Sterling incidents, “my white middle class friends have been up in my grill asking me, ’Tell me what’s going on in the Reno Police Department. What are you doing about this?’” He said his son has also been asking uncomfortable questions.
Duerr recalled attending ninth grade in a school that had about a 50/50 black-white split and was very tense. “I’m struck by the fact that this was 40 years ago, and here we are talking about the same things.”
The meeting of 139 people in a small room near downtown Reno went on like that, with attendees telling their stories or answering questions. Early in the meeting, Police Chief Jason Soto and Sheriff Chuck Allen described police procedures to which their departments subscribed that are designed to avoid brutality and violence.
Longtime civil rights leader Lonnie Feemster noted that at one time, a flag was hung in front of the NAACP headquarters in New York each time someone was lynched. It read, “A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.” Feemster displayed a photo of a flag that was hung recently at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York: “A MAN WAS LYNCHED BY POLICE YESTERDAY.”
“I am safer being a black man today than ever in this country’s history,” Feemster said, but argued that there are obviously still serious problems. He argued that there are police procedures that can be implemented from an NAACP report, Born Suspect.
“A lot of this has been done,” he said. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. … What have you implemented in this report?”
Sheriff Allen said, “I do believe we are embracing all six pillars that were cited by the Department of Justice. … We are not going to go back to the office and forget about this [meeting].”
He also said, “I hope and pray we never have a mistake where we have to come together and explain” a Castile/Sterling-type incident.
Feemster said, “People are saying, ’Well, if everybody has a gun, then the good guys will get the bad guys.’ I don’t know what things are going to be like for police officers if everyone has a gun.”Guarantees
When an audience member questioned Allen on his endorsement of ballot question 1, providing for gun purchase background checks, an approving murmur in the audience suggested its members also wanted the question answered. Allen answered, but NAACP officials shut down a follow-up question, saying they did not want the dialogue to be “combative.” The questioner said he thought it was important to get to real issues and not be drawn off by notions of sweetness and light.
NAACP President Patricia Gallimore said the meeting should be “oriented to the community, not so much focused on law enforcement,” a notion that did not sit well with many in the audience who thought the performance of law enforcement should be front and center in discussions.
Some audience members went ahead with difficult issues and tough language in spite of the admonition. “I am combative,” Rosa Broadhax said, and told the city officials in the audience that when some officials do not come to grips with important issues, they should speak against their colleagues instead of suppressing criticism in the interest of amity. She also said, “We need [meetings] like this in communities that are affected.” The meeting was held on West Fifth Street in Reno.
Two of the most striking pieces of testimony came from one black person and one white.
Former U.S. House candidate Rick Shepherd said he had benefited from treatment by a police officer during a traffic stop, escaping treatment that a black would have received. In 2005, he said, someone was arrested for shoplifting and found to have heroin. That person—unknown to Shepherd—used Shepherd’s name, birthdate and social security number at the time of the arrest. After being released, he was never seen again. A warrant for his arrest was issued when he failed to appear in court for a scheduled hearing.
For years afterward, Shepherd lived his life in ignorance of the incident in which his identity was used. But in 2007, he said, he was stopped for speeding by a Reno officer who did not run a check on him and thus did not discover the warrant that was out for his arrest.
“I don’t have any doubt that a black person would have been checked out,” he said.
Looking straight at the half dozen law enforcement officers seated in front of him, Shepherd said they surely must know by now that some of their officers are racist and should get rid of them.
“You need to do something about racists in your midst,” he said.
Sheila Louris described raising her children to have to avoid confrontation with police. In tears, she said, “We do tell our son, ’If you get pulled over hold your hands out.’ … We’ve been living with this all our lives … and it has to stop.”
Her statement drew tears from some of those in the audience.
She wasn’t the only African American who mentioned that practice. Another audience member said he learned it from his parents.
“Ten and two—hands up on the wheel—and that’s something I hope not to pass on to my kids,” said Don Dike-Anukam.
He went on, “I’m glad that you are all progressive-minded folks … but I’m very mindful of the fact that history has a way of going back and forth.” He asked if there was a “guarantee” that practices in local law enforcement would not be changed back in ways that victimize residents.
Chief Soto described the evolution of police procedures since the 1970s that protect residents and curb brutality, but he also offered a candid acknowledgment.
“Life’s not always about guarantees,” he said. “And there’s always going to be forums like this to be sure I’m doing my job.”
Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada director Bob Fulkerson said the problems are systemic and go beyond merely police procedures. For example, he said, “The private prison industry pushed through the criminalization of immigration to guarantee a perfect profit stream. … It’s not like if we just all get together and become one race this will all go away. No, it won’t.” He said that while some may not like politics, it is a necessary part of solving this kind of conflict, and people need to participate.
Brian Burghart, whose Fatal Encounters website tracks police killings and who was in the audience, said following the meeting that three people have been killed locally by law enforcement in 2016, two of them Latino, one African American. “At least one of them had mental problems,” he said.