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ELAINE SPEARMAN COMMENTARY: Change is needed at all levels

Over the past few years we have all seen a lot. For the past few weeks we have seen even more.

If you are a person of color, I would venture to say that you have spent a lifetime witnessing enough to write several books. I doubt that the books would be best-sellers. Why not? Because the books would detail longstanding injustices against your mother, your father, grandmother, sister, brother, aunt and uncle, cousins, school friends, Mr. Joe down the street, the neighbors and even unto yourself.

Calls for change in law enforcement practices do not always rise to defunding or closing the police department. What is anticipated is a reconsideration of expenditures within the department. In many cases there is a need for more police officers. There is a greater need for better and more honest training for officers that in no way compromises safety for the officer or the citizen that is of interest to the officer. While the standards for becoming a police officer should not be lowered, the standards should be consistent from the national level for every town, city and hamlet.

Every person expressing a desire to work in law enforcement does not need to have a job as a law enforcement officer. We have all heard jokes about a frustrated security officer who did not make the police force. He is generally pictured as going overboard in the quest to maintain security at his building. Many people have repressed, innate cruelty, where a badge, a gun and authority can be a lethal combination that allows the cruelty to be expressed beyond their own family and friends.

By and large most police officers do a good job. They are able to communicate with the general public in an acceptable, appropriate way. Some officers do not believe this is necessary given their policing role. Some of the anger that emerges from some officers appears to have been long festering. Some of the anger may be borne of fear. Fear of what or whom? Certainly there is the desire to stay alive. The citizens have the same desire.

These questions lead to the severe need for appropriate training. Value has to be given to the need for training regarding “implicit bias” and “systemic racism.” The training has to be given a level of importance that is as equal as learning to subdue suspects, the use of deadly force, Taser use and other law enforcement practices. Prospective officers as well as current officers who do not value this training should not become or remain law enforcement officers.

Community policing has been discussed for many years now. It is time for it to become more than a discussion. Law enforcement officers serve the community and are paid by taxpayers, whether they are residents or visitors who spend hard-earned dollars in our area. Every officer cannot be “Officer Friendly.” However, greater effort can be made the know the people that are being policed.

Many problems emanate from excessive stops of people of color. Every person of color that I know can tell you of an unfair, ill-understood law enforcement stop. This includes me. When and where do law enforcement officers learn the behavior to target people of color for traffic tickets or other stops for reasons that are simply made up to satisfy an ugly inner voice the officer has not dealt with? Have some biases been so ingrained and shared that the culture produces a belief that an African American stop will give you multiple violations? What does that mean for the officer.

The needed training should not come from within. Particularized training includes traditional “diversity training,” a review of the Fourth Amendment as it pertains to traffic/pedestrian stops and professional behavior during traffic stops. However, this training does not address “implicit bias.”

Here is where the difference comes in. All of us have preconceived notions (biases, stereotypes) regarding people (based upon gender, race disability, weight, etc.). The difference for policing with preconceptions is that it is detrimental to just, effective and safe policing. Biased police work isn’t just unacceptable to the community at large, but to most of the nation as recent events have shown. Biased police work is unsafe for the officer and the targeted person. The information within this paragraph — some paraphrased — has been provided to police departments across the country by contractual agreement with Casey Family Programs, New York State OCFS and Khatib Waheed, consultant, trainer and facilitator.

Those desiring to become law enforcement officers and officers currently serving need to come face to face with how they really feel. Why do you really want to become an officer of the law? What are your experiences with people different than yourself?

Change is needed at every level of government. From the dog days of the past we have “systemic racism.” Our governmental structure is wrought with bias incorporated at all parts — which affects the whole. It begins at the Supreme Court of the United States — the highest court of the land. No more does there seem to be equal justice under the law. The nominations appear to be based upon the candidates’ personal beliefs. Will you strike down Roe v. Wade? Will you support more independent power to the president? Will you strike parts of the Constitution that provide congressional oversight, so that America ends up becoming a dictatorship?

We must continue to work together to make a change in Gadsden. A change has to come.

Elaine Harris Spearman, Esq., is president of the Etowah County (Gadsden) branch of the NAACP.


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