By Jonathan Luevanos
On May 5, I-MERIT (International–Multicultural, Education, Research, Intervention and Training) hosted a community event at Fresno’s Alliant International University titled “Bridging the Gap Between Fresno Communities of Color and Law Enforcement.” I-MERIT, an organization that helps support multicultural training for students at Alliant, organized the event in consideration of the recent police misconduct, police violence, racial profiling and excessive use of force that has been highly publicized across the nation. The goal was to make the current nationwide discourse on the problems of law enforcement locally relevant.
The event consisted of a panel discussion between community members, law enforcement representatives and social justice advocates. The main topics discussed were community perspectives and concerns, law enforcement policy/ procedure and multicultural training, and the next steps for making Fresno a healthier community. The event was facilitated by Dr. Jennifer L. Lovell, assistant professor in the California School of Psychology at Alliant.
Lovell stated that she feels “positively about the meeting and hopeful about the impact it may have. We see this event as a small step toward the bigger goal of building greater trust between communities of color and law enforcement in Fresno.”
Lovell stated that a “key point that emerged during the discussion was that law enforcement ‘culture’ needs to shift from a militant to a guardian mentality. Since all panelists seemed to agree on the importance of this shift, we need to figure out how to make it actually happen. Shifting a cultural and local mentality requires intentionality and transparency.”
The discussion included five panelists: Rev. Dr. Karen Crozier, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, Rev. Dr. Floyd Harris, Jr., Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims and Minerva Perez. Crozier, an assistant professor at Fresno Pacific University who is committed to the well-being of Black people in the African diaspora first highlighted that the criminal justice system historically has not served communities of color but rather protects those from affluent neighborhoods. Crozier’s main concern during the discourse was the history and culture of racism, which was concretely addressed and made locally relevant by Harris.
Harris, an African-American community advocate from southwest Fresno, said that police departments came from slavery and that from day one “there was a culture established in America to assassinate the Black and Brown man.”
Harris believes that people who live north of Shaw Avenue “are treated differently” than those south of Shaw and that is unfair. According to Lovell, an “impactful moment was when Rev. Dr. Floyd Harris shared a personal story of harsh policing.”
Harris was minding his own business one day in a southeast Fresno neighborhood when an officer of the Fresno Police Department (FPD) told Harris to get up and leave the area. Harris asked the officer for his badge number and the officer called for backup. At the end of the confrontation, it seemed “like it was more important to call the SWAT team” than to establish a proper relationship with Harris. Dyer formally apologized to Harris because Dyer knew that his department erred in treating Harris incorrectly.
According to Lovell, the conversation “helped to underscore the significance of positive and respectful relationships between law enforcement officers and community members on a day-to-day basis.”
In light of the personal story that Harris shared, Crozier asked some important questions. “What does that mean in terms of addressing the historical damage as well as the individual damage? How do we begin to explore the deeper structural conditions based upon race?”
Dyer undermined Crozier’s concerns and said, “I don’t know what we do about going backwards, but I do know what we should do about going forward.” Dyer and Mims mainly focused on addressing multicultural training, law enforcement practices and policies and procedures.
During the meeting, Dyer emphasized that “45% of the cadets we have are Hispanic.” One interesting fact is that the FPD is 35% Latino. Meanwhile, Mims said that the Sheriff’s Department will be “hiring 130 new correctional officers.”
Debbie Reyes, an organizer for the California Prison Moratorium Project in Central California, stated that “the forum turned out to be more of a sales job for Dyer and Mims in terms of advertising careers for the police department and in coming off as if everything is fine in Fresno, when in fact [the forum] wasn’t friendly towards the community.”
According to a public relations article published on May 7 by the Washington Post, “In Fresno, a community-policing ethos builds ties between officers and residents,” the FPD has been developing a community-based policing initiative.
The article’s author, Wesley Lowery, states that “over the past decade a sustained policing initiative marked by community meetings, Christmas gifts and dozens of neighborhood events has fundamentally altered police-resident relations.” Lowery also stated that in Fresno “city officials insist [that] community policing has made the streets safer while improving perceptions of police legitimacy.”
There are a number of actions that must be taken in order to make the claims by the Washington Post true. First, all of the communities of color must be properly represented. Asians and Latinos make up more than 60% of the population in Fresno County. Without the whole population being represented, there is no proper representation. “We would have liked to have more community members in attendance [at the I-MERIT event], and so this indicates a weakness in our advertising and accessibility,” Lovell said.
Lovell stated that they “have begun to discuss the possibility of hosting a similar forum in west Fresno or another location that is easier for community members to access.” Lovell also said that “we may need to consider having a greater number of panelists and/or different ways to foster discussion.”
“The conversation did not reach depth around many of the issues,” said Lovell. “These conversations should expand to address other ways in which institutionalized racism and other forms of oppression (e.g., classism, heterosexism, xenophobia, etc.) impact the criminal justice system.”
In consideration of the arguments, opinions and stories provided by the panelists and Lovell on May 5 at the I-MERIT community event, is it true that “over the past decade a sustained policing initiative marked by community meetings… and dozens of neighborhood events has fundamentally altered police-resident relations”? Has policing in Fresno “been improving perceptions of police legitimacy”? It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming months.
Contact Jonathan Luevanos at firstname.lastname@example.org.