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Charleston police work to improve race relations

Charleston Gazette-Mail photo by F. Brian Ferguson During a news conference Tuesday announcing efforts to reduce racial disparities in arrests, Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster said he wants his officers “to treat everybody with human dignity.”
Charleston Gazette-Mail photo by F. Brian Ferguson
During a news conference Tuesday announcing efforts to reduce racial disparities in arrests, Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster said he wants his officers “to treat everybody with human dignity.”

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Another week or month will go by, and Takeiya Smith will hear about another shooting. She’ll watch a video or read a social media post, and she thinks about people she knows, like her two close friends who were pulled over and searched because police said there was a report of a “black man waving a gun out of their car.”

“I’ve seen officers playing basketball with kids in low-income communities,” Smith said at a news conference at Charleston City Hall. “I’ve watched people who look like me killed by police.”

Smith is the co-chairwoman of the Call to Action for Racial Equality coalition and a criminal justice major at West Virginia State University. To address racial disparities in arrests in Charleston, as well as improve relations with all members of the community, Charleston police, along with Smith and other local activists, announced a plan Tuesday to improve community relations, particularly with black residents.

According to The Washington Post, of 730 police shootings in the United States this year, 178 of those killed — about 24 percent — were black. Black people make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population. Of those shot, 15 were unarmed black men. Of all police shootings of unarmed people, black men made up about 35 percent.

Charleston isn’t Ferguson, Missouri, or any of a host of other cities healing from the aftermath of the fatal shootings of black men by white police officers in often-murky circumstances.

But the city is not immune to racial disparities in its arrests, a problem throughout the country. Advocates across the nation are calling for laws and policy changes to address the failed drug war, which disproportionately affected the black community and contributed to broken homes, poverty and unemployment.

Black people made up 11.8 percent of the population in Charleston from 2010 to 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. Meanwhile, they make up about 28 percent to 30 percent of arrests by the Charleston Police Department, according to Chief Brent Webster.

In 2013, 1,271 white adults were arrested in Charleston, according to FBI statistics. During that same year, 550 black adults were arrested. That’s equal to about 30 percent of the city’s arrests.

And while black people and white people use drugs at roughly equal rates, black people are more likely to be arrested for it in Charleston.

According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 9.5 percent of white respondents reported illicit drug use, while 10.5 percent of black people reported illicit drug use.

For possession of drugs in Charleston, 259 white adults were arrested in 2013, while 193 black adults were arrested. That’s equal to about 42 percent of arrests, even though they make up about 11.8 percent of the population.

Hoping to strengthen the community relationships that would prevent the civil unrest that followed Ferguson while addressing racial disparities in all arrests, members of the CARE coalition, also co-chaired by Stephen Smith, have been working on the initiative for more than a year. Faith leaders, community and civil rights activists and others were involved in developing the plan.

Webster said the components of the plan involve “transparency, community engagement and officer self-awareness.”

“I would hope a citizen would read this and say, ‘Wow, the police department’s trying,’ ” Webster said. “The Charleston Police Department does care.”

According to Webster and other organizers, the plan includes:

De-escalation training for police officers: Five Charleston police officers will be certified de-escalation trainers in the Racial Intelligence Training & Engagement curriculum. Every Charleston police officer also underwent de-escalation training in May.

 Webster said he was drawn to the training because of its focus on “emotional intelligence,” which involves officers being aware of and putting aside personal baggage before work each day.

“It’s basically coming to work prepared to treat everybody with human dignity,” he said.

More transparency: Charleston police have agreed to publish monthly arrest statistics that include race, age, gender and cause of arrest. Police already publish arrest reports online, but Webster said the reports requested by the CARE coalition will more clearly show racial disparities because they will show cumulative statistics, rather than just individual incidents.

Body cameras: Police plan to begin using body cameras within weeks. The police department worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to come up with a policy that protects privacy while still holding officers accountable. Patrol and bike units and officers on walking beats will carry them.

A youth advisory council: The council, to be made up of a diverse group of at least 10 young people ages 18-25, will begin meeting this month. According to organizers, the groups will meet regularly with police officers and make recommendations.

A day-long, department wide “anti-racism training”: Kenyatta Grant, of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, has conducted similar training in the past and will lead the effort.

A series of roll-call presentations, during which officers will meet and hear from community leaders from across Charleston.

Annual awards for police officers who demonstrate commitment to community policing. Webster said the officers will be chosen for “acts of compassion.” The goal is to honor multiple officers.

“Maybe someone changed a tire for someone or bought them a tank of gas,” he said. “These are the kinds of things the public needs to know we’re doing.

“I really want people to see police officers as human beings, because that’s what they are.”

Talks between Charleston Police Department leaders and coalition members on ways to reduce recidivism.

Similar efforts aren’t new to the department. City police and faith leaders created the RESET group after Michael Brown, a black man, was shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, bringing national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. RESET is meant to create a line of communication between clergy, who might hear of instances of discrimination from members of their congregation, and bring them to the attention of the police department.

Project West Invest, an initiative that places Charleston police officers in West Side homes, is also meant to strengthen community relationships in an area of the city that has a higher black population.

But Webster recognizes there is still work to do.

“I think people would be foolish not to admit we’re ahead of the curve here, but the goal is to stay ahead of the curve,” he said. “We just want to make sure we’re not stagnant.”

Stephen Smith thanked numerous partners at the effort — including the American Friends Service Committee, the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the East End Family Resource Center, the Tuesday Morning Group, RESET, the Black Ministerial Alliance, the NAACP, the ACLU, and the Kanawha County Public Defender’s Office.

“Nationwide, communities and police departments are clashing over what to do about this crisis,” he said, “but not in Charleston, West Virginia.”

Reach Erin Beck at [email protected], 304-348-5163, Facebook.com/erinbeckwv or follow @erinbeckwvon Twitter.

See more from the Charleston Gazette-Mail. 

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