By Community Alliance Staff
On Aug. 25, citizens from throughout Fresno gathered in west Fresno for a community town hall on discrimination in policing. Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, State Attorney Benjamin Wagner and District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp were present to respond to the concerns of the community.
The event was part of the Live Free initiative, organized by Faith in Community, the local branch of PICO. It was hosted by Taymah Jahsi and Chris Breedlove, who summed up the purpose of the discussion as “promoting public safety and addressing the lack of trust. Communities are in mourning. Concrete changes from policy makers and others in power are needed to create One Healthy Fresno.”
Jahsi: “Joseph Ma’s death was one of many nightmare cases that are proof that these tragedies are not confined to Ferguson and Staten Island. Fresno can no longer be in denial. There have been zero indictments of police-involved shootings in Fresno. California invests more in prisons than in education. Prisons take money directly away from education.
“Fresno needs to have a more authentic conversation about problems regarding mass incarceration. The three-strikes law originated, in part, due to the advocacy of a Fresno man. We must do away with the current model of militarization of the police force. Fresno can be a template for the nation.”
Breedlove: “Black Lives Matter is an affirmation of Black humanity and condemnation of its dehumanization. Demands need to be specific. The condition of Black life indicates the state of the nation as a whole. Fresno is No. 1 in California in terms of concentrated poverty, according to a new Brookings Institute report. It is heavily segregated by race. All the neighborhoods of poverty are in south Fresno, all communities of color.”
Fifteen-year-old Jaylin White, a youth leader with Faith in Community, shared her experience at Central High East. “How am I supposed to feel safe when there are armed police on campus, who focus all their attention on the Black and Latino students? I should feel safe and secure at school, but I am constantly aware of cases like Michael Brown and Sandra Bland. I shouldn’t automatically be a suspect because of the color of my skin.”
D.J. Criner, a minister from St. Rest Baptist Church, had his own experience with racial profiling by the Fresno Police Department in 2011. He was stopped outside his own home in a majority White neighborhood and asked what he was doing there. “We have an obligation that the voices of the marginalized not only are heard but also for the powers that be to hear them…I want my daughter’s biggest fear to be not getting into Yale, not that she will go to jail.”
Of those in the Fresno County Jail, 66.4% are unsentenced. The national average is 62%. This is due to our state bail system and high level of poverty in Fresno. According to community organizer JePahl White, “All African Americans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from their treatment in the U.S.”
White went on to ask, “Why is there community distrust of the Fresno Police Department? Fresno is 17th in the nation in police shootings, right above St. Louis. Fresno can be Ferguson. That’s why we’re here today.”
Many in Fresno would be surprised to learn of the city’s Confederate history. Noel Riggins and Katherine Gonzalez discussed this legacy, including the high number of Confederate soldiers who are buried in the Central Valley. The state seal was even designed by a former Confederate soldier. When Highway 99 was constructed in the 1970s, it destroyed the Black business district, leading to the decades-long lack of opportunities and isolation of Fresno’s west side.
After the presentations, community questions and demands were directed at Dyer, Wagner and Smittcamp. State Attorney Wagner said, “Everyone will not agree, but this is an important discussion. There is too much violence and it is good this is getting attention. Lack of education, housing and employment opportunities need to be addressed, as well as implicit and explicit bias.”
“In terms of policing, best practices task forces are being implemented. Some started a long time ago like here under Dyer. These focus on de-escalation tactics, implicit bias training and getting police departments’ body cameras. Also, the Smart on Crime Initiative emphasizes sentencing reform for low-level and nonviolent offenses.”
Live Free recommendations to the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and President Barack Obama included the following:
Creating a police accountability and community policing oversight body
Developing an urban gun removal policy
Supporting reentry policies such as Ban the Box and Fair Housing for HUD-subsidized units
Demilitarization of police departments
Advocating for the Walter Scott Amendment (Obstruction of Justice)
Dyer was asked if he was willing to allow an outside agency to provide implicit bias training. He did not make a definite decision about that. He said he was trying to get officers to self-reflect on their implicit bias and to provide training regarding mental health concerns and de-escalation tactics. There also were concerns about the Fresno Office of Independent Review given that the current individual only works in this position part-time and lives in Salt Lake City.
Live Free organizers demanded that the individual be required to live locally, that there be a citizen oversight panel—with real oversight such as subpoena powers—and that an internal affairs report be completed within six months. Dyer said he would be happy to be a part of a dialogue about this with the mayor and the city manager. He said he was willing to implement the 21st Century Policing practices by May 1, 2016. He said he is limited by outside agencies but can guarantee that all police shooting investigations tighten up from 12 months to nine. Dyer claimed he will work forward toward a six-month time frame.
For her part, District Attorney Smittcamp described herself as a public advocate to the Board of Supervisors. She said, “I got further monetary investment into the pretrial program to begin to move Fresno County away from incarcerating people based on poverty. Realignment money has funded this program. Once that money dries up, county money will have to be used. I was the first one to demand more funding for the Public Defender Department.”
Breedlove closed out the event by saying that Live Free is trying to be proactive about getting the Department of Justice involved and working with the Fresno Police Department to get ahead of the chaos and suffering of which we have seen too much in this country. Those who attended this town hall were encouraged to get involved in other community actions, such as participating in another town hall to determine the qualities of our next mayor. That will be on Oct. 22 at 6 p.m. at Westside Church of God (1422 W. California Ave.)