Four young people active in the Ferguson protests joined two St. Louis County Police officers and two St. Louis Metropolitan Police officers for an emotional discussion Saturday about the barriers between police and the community. Before an audience of about 50, they offered and discussed suggestions to start bridging the gap.
Most of the panelists agreed that the effort led to some progress towards understanding.
“At the end we all shook hands, met each other and we laughed and we talked about some of the things that were said,” St. Louis Metropolitan Police Officer Regiana Moore said.
Ferguson activist Jeanina Jenkins had a slightly less optimistic view.
“After listening to this meeting, I don’t think all cops are bad. I guess they just can’t step up because it’s their job,” she said.
During the discussion, Moore said that citizens shouldn’t start an interaction with police expecting to be treated badly. She said that young black men often have an attitude when police arrive because they think police are out to get them.
“We respond to calls to help you,” Moore said.
St. Louis County Police Officer Kevin Walsh echoed Moore, asking the audience to keep an open mind when they meet officers for the first time.
Activist Rasheen Alderidge said that city police did a better job of connecting to the community than county police, and asked the county officers what they were doing to build relationships.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said that his department was looking into coaching a sport, similar to the city’s basketball coaching outreach.
The activists also had pointed things to say to police at times. Taurean Russell of Hands Up United was among the most vocal. He said black police officers stopped being black when they put on their badges, and told highway patrol captain Ron Johnson that he felt sorry for him because he was used as a symbol.
Johnson, who is African American, was selected by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to lead policing efforts in Ferguson during the most intense weeks of protests following the August 9th death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer.
“They paraded (Johnson) out as the black face for the black community so they’re not going to be as upset. They are going to be more receptive to the black face telling them a lie.”
Johnson said he was selected to lead because he was the command leader of the highway patrol troop that has jurisdiction in Ferguson, not as a front man.
“The governor never looked at the color of my skin,” Johnson said. “This just happened to be the command that I was over in Troop C.”
The panel discussion was part of a community empowerment summit organized by 100 Black Men of Metropolitan St. Louis and sponsored by the ACLU of Missouri, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and Mound City Bar Association. The local president of 100 Black Men, Joe Anderson, said this was the first of several planned discussions between police and the community.
“Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get the answer you wanted to day,” Anderson said. “We’ll have more discussions. It’s a process.”
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille