What my Florida town can teach us about racist policing

Theodore ("Ted") W. Small Jr. is a lawyer and diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) facilitator and leader nationally recognized for originating university and community-based programs to facilitate candid discussions about law and the intersectionality of race, diverse identities, and poverty. He is the recipient of numerous community service and leadership awards, including the NAACP West Volusia Branch "Difference Maker of the Year Award", and is the former Chair of the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles at CNN

(CNN)Nine days before George Floyd died an agonizing death under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer while others watched, law enforcement officials broke up what has been described as a massive block party in my Florida hometown of DeLand and the surrounding unincorporated Volusia County. Video footage of police shutting down a local store and chasing some in the crowd led many to accuse local authorities of engaging in another incident of racist law enforcement targeting African Americans. But what actually happened there is more complex than what was initially reported -- and this local example has lessons for all of us looking for ways to facilitate effective community policing of African American communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Theodore W. Small, Jr
The DeLand "block party" took place only a few city blocks from where I grew up. The mostly African American neighborhood known as Spring Hill is one of five historically underserved communities in the DeLand area where freed slaves settled to live separately after the Civil War. My elementary school — once heralded as a sign of this area's progress toward racial reconciliation when in the 1970s white students from the suburbs were bused there to implement the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation order — is still a neighborhood school for mostly black and brown students.
I have considered those in this area to be a part of my village since childhood. The elders are precious to me. Some of those elders living nearby include my kindergarten teacher, the widow of my former 5th grade teacher, a former NAACP president and a retired director of the city's public works department. Many of my friends own homes and some family members operate businesses in this neighborhood. Periodically I worship in several of the local churches.
    While I have strong ties to the African American community, I also have a special relationship with local law enforcement leaders. I was on the selection committee that voted to recommend Jason Umberger as the new police chief for the city of DeLand in June 2017, where he still serves. Other committee members also grew up or worked in Spring Hill. We selected Police Chief Umberger, a white officer, because of his demonstrated commitment to improving police-community relationships during his community activities and decades-long career in Pennsylvania's Swatara Township Police Department.
    I was raised by a mother who distrusted law enforcement because of her experiences growing up in rural South Georgia in the 1930s and 1940s, when local sheriffs were often members of the Ku Klux Klan. Notwithstanding my trained uneasiness, Chief Umberger became the first ever law enforcement officer whom I trusted enough to sit down with for a one-on-one meal. Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood was the second.
    I have also hosted Sheriff Chitwood, Chief Umberger and many of their deputies and officers as guests and participants in an informal community discussion series known as the "Color Line Roundtable," which facilitates regular discussions about what W.E.B. DuBois described in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) as "the problem of the color line." Participants include a diverse group of neighbors willing to share thoughts and feelings about provocative issues in American race relations in an atmosphere where discretion and mutual respect can allow strangers to become friends. Many officers and deputies of all races have also attended church with roundtable participants for what we called "Integrated Sundays Fellowships".

    Our community dodged a bullet

    Figuring out exactly what happened that Saturday night will take time and require generous listening to reveal important details about exactly what events took place, how law enforcement became involved and whether permitting and operational procedures were followed.
    But based on my review of what has been reported in the news and extensive discussions with public officials, community leaders and residents, I'm convinced that the depiction of the event and the actions of law enforcement is contrary to what was initially reported. This was not a pop-up Spring Hill block party that spontaneously became massive, disruptive and violent. Instead, it involved groups gathered for a series of events (including, among others, a car show, a concert and memorial for a former Spring Hill resident who in 2008 was a victim of gun violence) that were promoted successfully enough to attract attendees from as far away as Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.
    And instead of becoming yet another incident where unarmed African Americans were shot by law enforcement officers who felt threatened based on preconceived fears and racist assumptions, there have been no reports or claims that these law enforcement officers shot, killed or inflicted life-threatening injury on any residents or visitors. (One visitor was reportedly hospitalized after being shot in the foot, but there has been no suggestion that police were involved in that incident.)
    According to multiple news stories, law enforcement officers claim they were hit and injured that night by a sucker punch and the hurling of bottles, a bar stool and a mason jar; that they recovered one loaded Ruger 9 mm and other guns, some narcotics and $3,840 in cash; that they made seven arrests and issued five traffic citations. It remains the subject of further investigation and reporting to resolve community complaints in social media posts about undue provocation, escalation and unlawful business interruption. Videos of the incident shed some light but do not capture all aspects of a crowd this large -- the Volusia sheriff's office estimated it at 3,000 -- moving across multiple locations.
    What is clear from my own review of the media reports and video from the DeLand police and the sheriff's office is that our community dodged a bullet in that no one was killed. For that, I credit the de-escalation training and methods that both Sheriff Chitwood and Police Chief Umberger have implemented within their agencies and the mostly nonviolent citizens who exercised restraint.
    I have spent hours discussing the event with a capable group of elected and appointed West Volusia officials, organizational leaders and residents. Based on these conversations, the way forward will require all those involved to take a step back from their own personal, financial or political interests to focus on something we seem to all agree upon: our elders are precious and deserve our selfless protection of their rights to safely enjoy the homes they have worked hard to own.
    To facilitate effective community policing during this pandemic crisis, law enforcement leaders and African American leaders and residents need to further discuss and endeavor to reach consensus on four practical steps: suspending plans for any large gatherings until public health officials say they are safe; advocating for national and state leaders to put health over politics by warning about the continuing risks of asymptomatic virus transmission as the economy reopens; using social media to promote a consistent message about the danger of asymptomatic spread, especially given that the African American community is experiencing a disproportionate number of Covid-19 deaths, and ensuring that when large events are permissible organizers comply with local permitting requirements, which should be consistently enforced in ALL communities, not just in African American neighborhoods.

    An opportunity to talk candidly

    In addition, the way forward will have to include broader participation by all Americans in candid discussions about the longstanding issues of racial and class inequalities that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed.
    Ironically, on the same morning as the Spring Hill neighborhood events in question, I was part of a group of 19 racially, politically and socially diverse individuals from eight states and 11 cities gathered for a virtual "Color Line Roundtable." For two hours via Zoom, participants thoughtfully discussed what values, beliefs and principles would guide their votes -- or abstentions -- in the November election. Each of us had a slightly different way of articulating those foundational beliefs, but, as one first-time participant emailed me after the discussion, it was "affirming to hear the commonality of beliefs and principles amongst a group of people who obviously also have some significant differences in opinions and positions."
    The next day, as I watched the video of law enforcement dispersing a crowd of neighbors and visitors from Spring Hill, my own sense of accomplishment at facilitating racial reconciliation was shattered. Chief Umberger has told local media that while the police response was about public safety, not race, body-cam video showed clearly that "there continues to be some racial tension between the Spring Hill community and law enforcement."
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      However, upon further reflection, I have come to appreciate the value of our community's years-long series of roundtable discussions. Covid-19 restrictions and Floyd's murder might have complicated relations with law enforcement officials, but they offer yet another opportunity for us to talk candidly about the complex issues of effective community policing, racial diversity, equity and inclusion. And it shows us that unlike communities where no such ongoing conversations occur, it makes a difference when many of the stakeholders have developed trusting, working relationships — and perhaps even friendships — long before an incident which could be construed as racist policing occurs.
      Good solutions to the complex problems of racism and poverty don't often look pretty. But having any hope of a good outcome during encounters between police and residents of African American communities, particularly during this Covid-19 crisis, will require commitments from law enforcement agencies across the nation to engage in candid discussions with residents about how to implement effective de-escalation and community policing strategies. Had we not had those discussions and built those relationships in Volusia County, the "massive block party" in Spring Hill could have ended on a far more deadly note.