Community forums discuss Ferguson, justice and race in Sacramento

Marchers block traffic on Florin Road in Sacramento, Calif. to protest the Ferguson Grand Jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18 year-old Michael Brown.
Marchers block traffic on Florin Road in Sacramento, Calif. to protest the Ferguson Grand Jury decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18 year-old Michael Brown. mlang@sacbee.com

When the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to charge Officer Darren Wilson in Michael Brown’s death was broadcast live last Monday, the 250 people watching it on a large screen at Oak Park’s St. Paul Baptist Missionary Church mostly reacted in silence. A lone voice in the back of the room shouted: “Ferguson’s already here!” But the crowd hardly seemed to notice.

After several minutes of quiet reflection, the group resumed its work, launching into the passionate yet civil discussions that have characterized the city’s four Just Justice Community Forums.

Ever since Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, died at the hands of Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, dozens of Sacramento community leaders, clergy, law enforcement and youths have been meeting monthly to address concerns raised by the Missouri incident and to develop strategies to keep it from happening here.

“It’s no coincidence we are here tonight in church – we in Sacramento have to lead by example,” Mayor Kevin Johnson told the crowd at the fourth and final forum at St. Paul. “Tensions are very high when you talk about a post-racial society – we’re not there yet.” He called the decision not to indict “a sad day for America … but as mayor of Sacramento, I’m really proud we’re here together being proactive. … The strength of Sacramento is its diversity.”

By watching the announcement “together, we will be able to let some emotion out in a constructive manner, which is a good thing – we don’t want to leave here angry,” Johnson added. “There’s a lot of good things happening in Sacramento we need to build on.” They include programs that bring together cops and clergy, police athletic leagues, officers on campus and a variety of other programs that connect police and sheriff’s deputies with youth and community leaders, he said.

Participants in the discussions included NAACP President Stephen Webb, City Councilman Allen Warren, Police Chief Sam Somers and Deputy Chief Mike Bray, incoming council members Rick Jennings and Larry Carr and a broad spectrum of youths, law enforcement, pastors and concerned citizens dedicated to avoiding the circumstances surrounding Brown’s death and the volatile aftermath.

The community forums, organized by the NAACP, Johnson, Warren and Jennings, each lasted about 21/2 hours. They began with more than 300 people at the Guild Theatre in Oak Park on Aug. 20, less than two weeks after Brown’s death. Johnson moderated the second forum Sept. 28 at the Hyatt Regency as part of the U.S. Conference of Mayors convening in Sacramento. The third forum, conducted by Webb, unfolded at St. Paul’s Baptist Church on Oct. 6, where the more than 210 participants were broken into eight or so workshop groups.

At last Monday’s meeting, on the heels of the grand jury’s decision, forum leaders outlined a plan based on suggestions that emerged from the sessions:

▪ Hire a more diverse, better-trained police force with officers who won’t rush to judgment based on race and live in and interact with neighborhoods.

▪ Respect cuts both ways – youths need to curb their anger, and both sides must develop trust based on that mutual respect. Young people need better schools, mentorship programs, supervised activities, parental and community involvement and continuing dialogue. Tyler McClure, a young African American who works with Jennings, said at the third forum that the Michael Brown situation occurred because “we were not taught how to behave” around police. “We have to reach out to each other before we reach out to police,” McClure said.

Johnson, who has faced criticism over his public frustration at the grand jury’s decision, has ridden point at the forums. He listed what he called the “Four R’s” – key themes that ran through each of the sessions: (1) Relationships that foster partnerships between law enforcement and schools, faith-based and community organizations, such as quarterly “know your rights” events. (2) Recruitment of a more diverse police force and more cultural sensitivity training. (3) Resident frustration can be mitigated by increasing youth jobs and activities, and holding at least 10 “listening sessions” between youths and law enforcement over the next year. (4) Race remains a serious issue and could be addressed by a more diverse police force and the reconstitution of a racial profiling commission.

For years, the Sacramento Police Department has worked to defuse racial tensions between officers and the neighborhoods they serve. In 2008, the Police Department released a consultant’s report that showed black motorists were stopped 2.7 times more than would be expected based on the total number of drivers, and Latino motorists were also pulled over a disproportionate amount of times and were patted down at 2.5 times the rate of other motorists. Since then, the department became the first “to jump on training addressing biased policing,” Somers said. “Our over 1,000 hours of training far exceeds what the state requires.”

At the final forum, Johnson praised Sacramento’s Police Department as “one of the finest in the country,” and between 35 and 50 law enforcement officials from the police and sheriff’s departments along with the CHP turned out for each of the four community forums.

Somers and Bray said Sacramento can and will do better. The department’s 623 sworn officers – 513 men and 110 women – include 469 whites, 65 Latinos, 48 Asian Americans, 24 African Americans, 10 Filipinos and six native Americans. In Sacramento, about 15 percent of the population is black; in Ferguson, it’s around 67 percent, but only 3 of the 53 officers are black, which Ferguson’s mayor has publicly attributed to a lack of interest in joining the force.

Beginning with the Cops & Clergy program initiated with the late Pastor Sherwood Carthan two years ago, Sacramento police have been working both to improve diversity and build trust, Somers said Sunday. “Clergy actually rides with our three gang enforcement teams every other week to talk to people before there’s a situation. They go out there not to arrest, not to search, but to have a conversation to change the path a person may be going down.

“I can see where the perception is all we do is arrest and incarcerate,” Somers added. “If the African American community doesn’t trust the criminal justice system, why would they want to be a part of it?”

To expand the pool of diverse applicants – who need college degrees – the department recently recruited at the Bayou Classic between traditional black college Grambling and Southern, Somers said. “Looking at homegrown measures, we have a magnet academy of 500 kids from Grant, McClatchy, Hiram Johnson and Kennedy high schools to build a really strong pipeline of college-bound grads and get them into our academy earlier.”

Bray noted that the Ferguson Police Department, which took months to release its findings, suffered from gaps in information, which he attributed partly to the “massive incident thrust on a very small town.”

When there’s an officer-involved shooting here, the Sacramento Police Department will release substantive information within 24 hours, Bray said. “As a larger department, we will have PIOs that will come out and put out information right away,” Somers added. “Regardless of the verdict, this was a very tragic situation, but it did provide an opportunity for discussion. In Sacramento, we’re not perfect, but we’re not Ferguson.”

At St. Paul, Johnson praised local pastors and activists who have visited Ferguson to promote peace and learn from the situation.

Councilman Warren spoke for many when he told the audience: “There’s really no justification for a young person to lose their life the way we consistently see over and over, essentially over misdemeanor actions. … This is not a black/white issue, it’s a wrong/right issue. When something like this happens, we must all stand together.”

While grieving for Brown’s family, defense attorney Paris Coleman, who is African American, didn’t challenge the grand jury’s decision. He said he wants justice, but said: “I can live with the outcome. To do so otherwise means to simply ignore the rule of law, and there can be no justice under those circumstances.”

Coleman, encouraged by the mayor’s plans and the attitude of the participants, said the best way to prevent another Ferguson is to continually “address the division that separates our people from those sworn to protect us. I remain hopeful.”

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Bee researcher Pete Basofin contributed.