Activists want acknowledgement, communication

Sean Philip Cotter
  • Local activists look for better ongoing dialogue about policing, race.

Before and after Pastor Larry Walthour II moved to York City, he cracked open some history books.

He wanted to read up on his new home, where he moved last year after spending the past two decades in Florida. And what he found struck him as a citizen, as a member of the clergy and as a black man.

"Before there was a Ferguson, Missouri, before there was a Baton Rouge, before there was a Sanford, Florida, with Trayvon Martin, before there was all the social unrest that's happening, it happened right here in York City," said the new leader of the Shiloh Baptist Church in the city's west end, referring to the race riots in 1969. "Much of the social unrest we see across the nation, we see in York."

Stories about the relationships between law enforcement and people of color dominate the headlines. Several recent controversial shootings of black men by police spawned protests across the country, including here in York City. And then shootings of multiple police officers by two black men put police across the country — and locally — on edge.

Walthour, a former police chaplain, said he has a nuanced view and can see the issue from all sides. What the country needs now, he said, is to start an honest, good-faith conversation, a statement echoed by local activists.

"I'm one who's about healing," he said.

Walthour said that's why his church hosted a community forum Thursday evening: to try to get the city, law enforcement and the community, people of all colors and creeds, into a room to let each other know where they stand. He called the event "York City United: We All Matter."

Police: Though they were invited, no police officers showed up to the meeting, which ultimately focused less on police-community relations and more on local crime. York City Police Chief Wes Kahley said via text message that the reason no one from the police brass was there was "more of a scheduling issue than anything else."

He wrote that he's scheduled a meeting with the pastor.

Members of the community take part in a panel discussion Thursday at Shiloh Baptist Church to improve York City.

The chief repeatedly has said his door is open to anyone who wants to meet with him. He's met with four people so far and has several more scheduled.

"One thing we should keep in mind is that the nation's story doesn't have to be York's story, and there appears to be many people who want to make sure we write our own narrative," Kahley texted on Tuesday. "A positive narrative."

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Conversation: A couple of the local activists said law enforcement needs to show up to meetings such as the one on Thursday — it's going to take a long, sustained effort to build trust between the department and the communities it serves.

"I think all segments of our community do want that, but they have to be more intentional about making it happen," said Stephanie Seaton, who organized one of the two simultaneous rallies that converged outside the police station July 8. "It doesn't just happen."

Carla Christopher

And the conversation about the relationship between police departments and communities of color can be a hard one to start, she said.

"This is a sensitive subject," Seaton said. "People take it real personal."

She said officers take it too personally when someone offers criticism of policing in general.

Local activist Carla Christopher said black people first are looking for an acknowledgement that they're killed by police at a higher rate than other races and that it's harder to be black than not in America.

"They're looking for, for one: just an acknowledgement of their struggle," said Christopher, who is black.

Pastor Larry Walthour II

'Zero trust': Right now, she said, many in the York community don't have a particularly positive view of the department.

"There's zero trust in our police department," she said, and that makes it hard to recruit locals, especially black Yorkers, for careers in law enforcement. And that's something the police must change, she said.

Christopher said she works with the local YMCA, training city residents to take the tests needed to become a police officer, but it's hard to recruit many interested people.

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Right now, with what Christopher said is a lack of positive contact between the department and the people it serves, there's a great deal of mistrust of all police officers.

In the minds of many people of color, she said, "police aren't people — they’re badges and guns that kill you. We have to change that."

Walthour, the pastor, said he understands why many black people don't trust the police.

"As a pastor, as an African-American man, as a chaplain who carried a badge, many times I'm in fear for my life when I travel, because many times officers don't necessarily see a chaplain or a pastor — they see somebody in the narrative of what our national media is showing," he said.

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Seaton also made sure to make clear she wasn't anti-police, as some have called the Black Lives Matter movement, a loosely affiliated group that's sprung up in protest of controversial killings of black people by police across the country.

"We shouldn't have a society where there’s no respect for law enforcement," she said. "Our law enforcement are out there solving crimes and doing good things every day."

Public relations: Both women talked about the need for the city department to do better public relations for itself.

When prompted for concrete changes they'd like to see, both — independent of each other — suggested the department hire a public relations person. They said that person could take better advantage of social media, the news media and community settings to highlight good work the local department does.

Hundreds of community members gather in front of the York City Police Department for an anti-violence rally Friday, July 8, 2016. Amanda J. Cain photo

Christopher acknowledged the city police are bound by budget constraints — in a poor city that's constantly struggling to balance its budget, it's hard to hire more officers, to train them, to hire a designated PR person. But she wasn't willing to let that be the final answer.

"If the guns stopped working, they'd find a way to make the guns work," she said. "If your communications isn't working, you have to find a way to make it work."

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Perception: The day of the protests, Kahley, the police chief, told The York Dispatch his officers feel under attack. He said that his department often makes community outreach efforts but the community has an incorrect view of them — and one that's hard to change.

"We're constantly battling against the perception that we have a racist and a brutal police department that violates people's rights," he said then.

Christopher, who said she plans to take the chief up on his offer to sit down and have a discussion, said she's not trying to paint all police officers with a broad brush. "A lot of our officers do great work," she said.

But the idea that they feel under attack makes her worry about how they might respond differently in fraught situations.

"It is very scary to think about a bunch of scared officers feeling jumpy, jittery, with their hands on their triggers," she said.

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Despite the upsetting nature of the current atmosphere, Christoper said it seems like it might provide some common ground.

"If officers are feeling scared now and feeling defensive, now you understand how black people feel when they get pulled over by police," she said.

And that seems like something both communities can build on, she said.

"Look," she said, "we don't wanna die, we don't want you to die. Let’s take a look at this."

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.

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