Recent police-involved shootings and the targeting of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge has the nation on edge. Black communities and law enforcement throughout the country are struggling to find peace, unity, understanding, and trust with each other, including in Arkansas.
On Wednesday, August 3, Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner, Mayor Mark Stodola and former Pulaski County Curcuit Judge Marion Humphrey will take part in a community meeting at Saint Mark Baptist Church to discuss the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve. It runs 6 to 8 p.m. at the church at 5722 West 12th Street.
Other events have also been held elsewhere in Arkansas. On Saturday, July 16, a peaceful march was held in Jonesboro where residents expressed their concerns.
“We already have a target," said Keithston Page. "Not only being black, but being a man, period, in this white man’s world." He and his wife live in Jonesboro and are students in Arkansas State University’s Graduate Program. Page recalled an incident in 2013 where he says he was harassed and racially profiled by Jonesboro police officers. It happened after dropping off his sister at a local restaurant.
“Once I got into the intersection, I got pulled over," Page explains. "I was thinking, maybe I did something wrong." He said he got out of his car and was approached by a white police officer with his hand on his holster.
Page says the officers stopped him because his car fit the description of another vehicle they were looking for in connection to a crime. The officer's partner, who was black, was telling him they had stopped the wrong car. Page says he and the black officer tried to explain to the white officer that they had stopped the wrong person.
“The white officer kept saying 'this is the same black car with the same black guy in it," Page says. The officer also said that the suspect they were looking for had dreadlocks, which Page did not have.
Page says he never really thought much about the encounter until recent police-involved shootings elsewhere in the nation.
“Being profiled like that, it says something about humanity; how they see us as not even human beings. It's like we're animals, just because we have dreads, or a fro, or cornrows, or whatever," Page says. "I have three degrees, never been in trouble, don't have a criminal record."
Page says African-American men are becoming “endangered.” That's the same word used to describe the relationship between black men and law enforcement by Edmond Davis, a history instructor at Arkansas Baptist College, a historically Black school in Little Rock.
"There’s officers of the law, or people with badges that are killing African-American males," Davis says. "We're definitely highly endangered. So we have to act better and be a whole lot smarter.”
Davis also runs a non-profit organization called Aviate Through Knowledge which strives to inform minorities about social best practices in handling certain situations, such as being approached by law enforcement.
Davis recalled an incident last year in which he was speeding to make a speaking engagement at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville and got pulled over by an officer. He says he kept both hands on the steering wheel while talking to the officer, who asked why he was speeding.
"Officer, I'm sorry. I have to give a speech. Please forgive me," Davis says he told the officer.
"No problem," the officer replied. "Let me see your license, registration, and insurance."
Before removing his hands, he asked the officer for permission to grab his information. After getting permission, Davis says he slowly grabbed his license and registration from the glove compartment, announcing his every move to show the officer that he wasn’t a threat.
When the officer ran the information, he noticed Davis had a federal license to carry a gun. The officer asked Davis if he had his gun on him. Remembering his training, Davis simply told the officer “no.” However, he recalls what he was thinking at the time. “He said that to me," Davis said, "but my response in my head was why would you ask me that question, man? I just told you I'm going to speak to about a thousand college students. Why would I bring a pistol to a college."
Davis says he didn't argue with the officer because it would've delayed his trip or gotten him into more trouble.
"A lot of times, people just say what's on their minds. They call it 'keepin' it real,'" Davis explains. "Sometimes, 'keepin' it real' goes bad. So, it's just wise to not always say what’s on your mind.”
Davis walked away with a warning and a confirmation that his training worked.
While Davis had a positive experience in his encounter with law enforcement, Page’s negative encounter coupled with the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota brought a concern that is also echoed by some in the Black community.
“What do we tell our young boys? Our Sons? Our cousins? Our nephews," Page asks. "Comply with the Police. Do what they tell you to do. [Castile] was giving his identification to them and he got shot in cold blood. So what do you expect for us to do? (If) we comply with you, we get shot."
Sgt. Cassie Brandon with the Jonesboro Police Department’s Community Outreach and Recruiting, says that in the moment, officers ask for compliance.
"If we give an order, there's a very high likelihood that we know what we're talking about," she says. "We expect people to do whatever we're telling them to do so we can resolve whatever situation that we’re dealing with.”
Brandon explains that asking people to comply keeps everyone in the situation safe and makes the process move a whole lot smoother.
“That's what we prefer," Brandon says. "I can tell you, I don't wake up in the morning -- and I don't know any officer that does -- that’s looking for a fight.”
She says people who feel like they have been unfairly treated by officers can deal with that situation after it is over.
Sgt. Brandon says the police department has been making strides to become trusting and transparent, while at the same time being cautious in a contentious time for officers.
“We train our officers, and I was trained, to treat people professionally with respect," says Brandon, "but to also be vigilant and make sure that the people you're dealing with aren't wanting to hurt you. That's always a threat in law enforcement that we have to be aware of.”
The Jonesboro department tries to open the line of communication by offering a citizen police academy and having recruitment fairs with a heavy emphasis on asking minorities to join the force.
Officers also cooperated in a peaceful march which took place in Jonesboro two weeks ago with members of the city's African-American community. Both groups were able to share their concerns with each other and receive best practice advice for dealing with one another.
Aviate Through Knowledge, Davis’ organization, uses a different approach to improve the line of communication between law enforcement & minorities. He offers a traveling interactive lecture series which provides tips for how to respond to police responsibly. Davis calls them the “Safety Advocacy Tips” or the “21st Century SATs.”
"I want them to be well seasoned," says Davis. "That way we can help people make better decisions when they come in contact with anyone in uniform or anyone in plain clothes that may be an officer of the law."
In spite of his experience, Page also wants to help improve relations between the community and police. He’s working on a campaign called #changethebeat. He says it's time to change the way all sides approach each other and that unity should be the end result.
“We appreciate them," Page says. "We also want to let them know that we know that y'all are doing a good job, a damn good job, but, the thing is, we’ve got to have y'all's trust."