Ending the Divide . . .

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Photos by Frank Weir

County panel seeks ways to ‘Strengthen the Bridge’

By Frank Weir
Legal News

What’s a partial answer to the racial unrest that has stricken Ferguson, Mo., New York City and Cleveland involving police and the African American communities in those cities?

Talk to one another before an incident occurs and seek to have police officers live in the communities they patrol.

Those were two of the conclusions of a panel and community gathering held last week at St. Johns United Church on South Mechanic Street in Jackson.

Local lawyers and Judge Joseph Filip, along with key law enforcement and community leaders, came together to address, “Strengthening the Bridge: The Relationship Between the Criminal Justice System and the African American Community, A Jackson Community Conversation.”

The event was in celebration of Black History Month, according to organizers.

In addition to 12th District Court Judge Filip, lawyers on the panel included Jackson County Assistant Prosecutor Jake Dickerson, Jackson criminal defense attorney George Lyons, and Lansing criminal defense attorney Jamie White.

The event featured a strict question-and-answer format with time at the end for questions and comments from the audience. Panelists agreed that communication was key.

“Meeting before an event takes place and building relationships so we can address what comes up is crucial,” said Jackson Chief of Police Matthew Heins. “We don’t get it right every time. We make mistakes but we need lines of communication before we get to that point.”

Dickerson agreed with Heins that far-away crises still have an impact on everyone.

“It’s not just a New York issue or Ferguson. We all know about it and people have strong reactions and often very strong feelings against each other.  And those feelings need to be addressed.”

Jackson County Sheriff Steven Rand noted that law enforcement needs to use its discretion “wisely.”

“One of the things in law enforcement is that we can fail at not using discretion wisely. That’s where we need to improve. Eric Gardner was selling cigarettes. How important was it to enforce that ordinance? How important is it really because you know it may not end well. You are not going to stop people from selling cigarettes so it goes back to discretion I think.”

Lansing criminal defense attorney Jamie White noted that police officers rarely live in the communities that they patrol now, unlike in the past.

“Since at least the 1990s, community policing has gone away. When police have a relationship to the community, then they will be more compassionate. Maybe if Michael Brown had known the young officer. Or if officers in New York knew Mr. Gardner, maybe they would not have put a chokehold on him.

“That’s the answer: having police be a product of the same environment. Now they are just there 8 to 5. The solution?  Make policy changes and provide an incentive for police to live in the community. Have police come back to the community and be a part of it,” he said.

In response to a question about diversity “in the courts,” Judge Filip felt the courts “do a pretty good job.”  Some noted a lack of African American judges and White responded that, “You can’t hold judges responsible for the racial makeup of the court. Get to work and find and support African American candidates.”

In a similar vein, there was a question about a perceived lack of diversity of jury pools in Jackson County.

Although Judge Filip said he was “not sure I accept the premise that our juries are not diverse,” Dickerson stated that “jury panels are not diverse at all.

“In my last six trials there were maybe two or three African America jurors out of all six trials combined. And it has always been like that. I don’t know how to change that, I’m not sure what process we should use but we need to make it so everyone is eligible and potentially can be called.

“(Lack of) diversity in our jury pool is ridiculous,” Dickerson said.

Local criminal defense attorney George Lyons said that, “African Americans do everything they can to get off jury duty or not return their summons. When you get that summons, act on it. Don’t say I can’t hear, I can’t see, or my feet hurt. 

“We need you to stay on the jury.”

White concurred that jury selection and diversity is “completely broken.”

“It’s shocking. I do a lot of trial work, murder trials, and if there is one black juror, that’s a surprise. I don’t know why. Socioeconomic challenged groups in certain areas don’t have driver’s licenses, people don’t vote. That’s part of the problem. But to see the look on a defendant’s face when he walks into the courtroom and faces a sea of older white jurors, it’s depressing.”

About the mistrust that many young African Americans have of law enforcement, Lyons said that mistrust has existed for a long time.

“I grew up in Detroit with STRESS (Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets) and ‘The Big Four.’ The issue is the historical relations of African Americans and the police. How do African Americans view the police and how do the police perceive us.

“We have to find a way to bridge the inappropriate behavior of law enforcement and the fear and inability of the African American community to trust law enforcement.  What can we do to change perceptions?”

Jon Johnston, deputy director of Blackman/Leoni Public Safety Department said, “It’s easy to distrust a stranger. There is no easy solution but a good start is to develop those relationships, that trust. We can’t be an occupying force. We should work toward that end to improve.”

Rand acknowledged that law enforcement had not done a “very good job” in the last 20 years in engaging with African American youth in a positive manner. “We need to get out of the car and talk to kids when they are young. Parents need to be behind that effort so we don’t lose another generation to mistrusting law enforcement.”
Heins said building better relationships between law enforcement and the African American community will be an ongoing process “till the end of time.”

But a woman in the audience noted that it can be difficult for residents in the community to do their part in building relationships and trusting law enforcement when “the police have all the power.”

“That needs to be addressed.” 

And on that note, Lyons added that, “It’s like saying the chicken needs to be nicer to the fox. The community resident can’t arrest and detain anyone. Law enforcement has a greater responsibility to reach out. But the African American community has to be ready to reach out to the 99 percent who are good cops.”

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