Time for tough, frank conversations about race

by Patrick Flanagan

Speaking during Acadiana Press Club’s Monday forum are, from left, Marja Broussard, David Khey, Art LeBreton and Reggie Thomas.
Photo by Patrick Flanagan

Is Lafayette's sense of community strong enough to insulate it against what's been playing out nationally in recent weeks as people take to the streets in protest of yet another round of fatal police shootings of black males? That was one of the main topics of an Acadiana Press Club gathering Monday.

Baton Rouge is less than an hour away, and the recent police killing of Alton Sterling turned our neighbor to the east into one of the most popular destinations in the country for Black Lives Matter protesters.

Police met the protesters in full riot gear, and there were hundreds of arrests. But the tragedy turned even more tragic and violent Sunday when a lone shooter from out of state ambushed and murdered three law enforcement officers. Three additional officers sustained injuries during the ambush; one is still fighting for his life.

That Sunday massacre came on the heels of a similar incident in Dallas, where another gunman targeted and killed five police officers as a self-described act of revenge.

We're not in a good place right now in this country when it comes to the relationship between black Americans and law enforcement. And that raises an important question: What about Lafayette?

What happens if a Lafayette officer is involved in fatally shooting one of our black citizens? Recent history of the Lafayette Police Department shows it's happened before, 11 times under retired former Chief Jim Craft. The difference between those incidents and the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in Minnesota is all about timing. Even though Lafayette's past police shootings were all investigated and the officers eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, there's a fundamental difference between those and the killings of late; namely, when they happened. In the time since Lafayette's last fatal shootings by one of its officers, much has changed. People are now watching and reacting in protests that grow bigger with each shooting. Black Lives Matter has gone from slogan to movement.

"This is a scary time for law enforcement officers," says Reggie Thomas, a 26-year veteran of the Lafayette Police Department who has served as interim chief since Craft's retirement from the force in January.

Thomas was among four panelists featured Monday at the law enforcement forum, held at The Daily Advertiser. Thomas was joined by Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office Enforcement Commander Maj. Art LeBreton; David Khey, head of UL Lafayette's Criminal Justice Department; and Marja Broussard, a community organizer who also serves as leader of the Lafayette chapter of the NAACP.

"The uniform, it is a target," Thomas continued. "Police officers can continue to be professionals, well-trained and in touch with the people they're policing. You have to know the people you're policing. Right now, I'm concerned about keeping my officers and the community safe."

Despite recent events, Thomas is optimistic for Lafayette as a community, saying that by taking the right steps, the local PD can bridge the long-standing divide between itself and black residents. Also optimistic is LPSO's LeBreton.

"In Acadiana we benefit from a good relationship with the community," said LeBreton. "This region hasn't seen a great deal of civil unrest. The police department and sheriff's office, we are members of the community. It sets standards for what are the expectations of the community. I think our community is best served by local law enforcement."

That sentiment, however, was not shared by all in attendance at Monday's forum.

The NAACP's Broussard said there is a problem and it's real. Pointing out that black men have in fact been killed during past encounters with the Lafayette Police, Broussard raised a number of questions about who should be policing whom.

"There's definitely a problem, and my solution is to let African Americans patrol the African-American communities," urged Broussard. "I wonder, how many white officers have killed black males? How many black officers have killed black males? How many white officers kill white males? It's in the stats, white officers kill African-American citizens. The officers don't know us. African Americans need to train white officers in how to handle African Americans."

John Milton, a local lawyer and pastor who was in the audience, pointed to the recent statute passed by the Louisiana Legislature making it a hate crime to target law enforcement officers with violence.

"Our Legislature passed a law recently giving greater protection to our law enforcement," noted Milton, who is black. "You know, All Lives Matter really doesn't come up unless you say Black Lives Matter."

And for Milton, this is not a new issue; he says it goes back centuries.

"We're not living in a post-racial America," said Milton. "We've never gotten to real solutions. From slavery to Jim Crow to segregation, we never really talked about it. We need to learn to talk about black people not as the object but as the subject. We're being talked about but not being talked to. Fixing the disease of white guilt ... we thought we did that by electing a black president. But that's a lie. We need to have the dialogue. We have to address this. But I don't think this community is ready to do that."

Another black member of Monday's audience, Tonya Bolden-Ball, warned that what happened to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile will happen here.

"It's gonna happen," she said. "Now it's time for us to take notes ... we can't afford to be reactive. Lafayette needs to start taking notes. We're just a bullet away ... we need to start having conversations that are uncomfortable."

Another audience member, a 38-year-old black man who withheld his name during the forum, shared a story of what his life has been like as a black man living in the American.

"The reality of it is, when I drive to work every day, I'm looking in the mirror," he said. "I shouldn't feel I'm about to wet my pants because I'm about to step out of a car and get shot because I reach for my phone."

This dread has led him to always prepare for the worst, like how he types up a pre-text message to his girlfriend in the event that he's pulled over and arrested.

The 38-year-old black man questioned why he isn't treated like his fellow white residents.

The answer likely lies hidden in what David Khey calls "mountains of research" containing ways to effectively fix the problem. Yet, as Khey warned during Monday's forum, this will require a long-term effort, and will probably take more than one generation to make right. Khey, who's spent 15 years researching these issues, says understanding the roots of all that's been playing out in the last two years between police and the Black Lives Matter movement is hugely complex.

"Given the amount of coverage we've seen on this, it seems like our ship is headed in the wrong direction," warned Khey. "There's mountains of research to rely on to get this right. There's a deterioration of trust where it impacts our lives on both side the fence. Since Jim Crow we've just been putting a Band-aid on it. But research shows there are disparities in society that are persistent. On the individual level, it doesn't seem that bad. But on a larger scale there are disparities that just aren't fair. What's happening now is an example of how these disparities impact us over time."

Khey points to the loss of public investment in mental health and substance abuse treatment, and the lack of educational resources for low-income students. This "divestment" as he calls it, has resulted in our law enforcement officers now being the go-to for handling these societal issues.

"There's a breakdown in mistrust in our communities," said Khey. "There's fear of our neighbor, fear of law enforcement, and if you're someone suffering from mental illness or addiction, who do you turn to? Law enforcement becomes the face for all these things: domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health. All of these are heavily concentrated in black communities. There's just a whole lot of complexity to this issue. Shootings are just symptoms of a greater problem."

The worst thing Lafayette can do, adds Khey, is ignore the problem.

"It's going to take a very long time to address these trust issues," continued Khey. "But to ignore, to put another Band-aid will just not suffice. I do think it's going to take another generation or two before we'll see change. We must understand what lives get pushed away in society."

Yet Lafayette's interim police chief does believe the conversation is starting and the change happening.

Thomas believes the gap between law enforcement and Lafayette's black citizens can be bridged with what he calls "community policing." It's an often-heard term, but Thomas says it's simple; it's just a matter of police learning to talk to the community. "I believe in community policing. It's a philosophy. If you talk to your community, show you're willing to back and work with that community. I think by doing that this community will never have the problems we've seen. I know I'm all in."

Thomas pointed to Lafayette's black population and the makeup of its police department. Given that only 17 percent of Lafayette's police officers are black compared to a citywide population of 32 percent, Thomas said recruitment would be another good place to start.

"I believe the police department should mirror the community it serves," said Thomas. "We can do better. It starts with recruitment."

And what about Marja Broussard's idea of having only black officers policing black citizens?

"Can African Americans police African Americans better than a white guy can?" questioned Thomas. "Look I need African Americans all over the police department. Do we need more diversity? Yes. We have to recruit better. Not just college, but from the military, churches, by getting our officers to go out in the community to help recruit. I believe by having better diversity all over the department we'll have better policing."

Thomas also believes higher ranking officers need to be out in the community, accessible to the public, in order to make the necessary changes happen.

"Community policing starts at the top," he explained. "People want to see the chief sit down and talk to people. We should demand our higher ranking officers come talk to the community. They need to be out there because they can make changes happen immediately. People have been saying, 'I'm not used to seeing the chief out here.' You can't talk to everybody, it's a very busy job, but I have no problem talking to people." (Thomas is unable to apply for the permanent police chief post because he lacks a bachelor's degree.)

Bridging this divide is also going to take new approaches to training, noted Thomas. Lafayette officers undergo 40 hours of required training every year, and this does include diversity training. Thomas did stress that more hours could be devoted to diversity-focused training. "That's something I'm going to continue to push."

Additionally, work has been under way since earlier this year to improve community relations, Thomas told the audience.

"Right now I'm concerned about keeping my officers and the community safe," said Thomas. "You have to know the people you're policing. Community relations. We started a committee with members of the Northside of town. The Lafayette Police Department is at the table ready to work with whoever will sit with us. Communication is key to it all."