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Charleston Police Chief: "We Will Not Tolerate Racism"

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Ashton Marra
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In just the past few weeks, we’ve seen communities across the country continue to react to the deaths of two black men killed by police officers. Grand juries in both Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, decided not to indict two white officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, sparking protests and riots in not just those communities, but many others.

In West Virginia, protests have been small and peaceful, but that doesn’t mean law enforcement officers aren’t taking seriously the possibility of a similar situation happening in the state. 

This week members of the Charleston Police Department held forums with local clergy members in hopes of keeping the lines of communication open and racial tensions in check.

“We will not tolerate dishonesty. We will not tolerate sadistic behavior. We will not tolerate racism,” Charleston Police Chief Brent Webster said as he addressed the dozens gathers at the Charleston Civic Center for a community forum Monday.

The event was organized by the Black Ministerial Alliance and the Charleston Area Religious Leaders Association in conjunction with the City of Charleston. Those invited included prominent clergy members from around the Kanawha Valley and ranking members of the police department.

Webster participated in the small group conversations that lasted most of the day, but his mid-morning address to the group focused on the police perspective.

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Credit Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A small group discussion at the forum.

“When the question is asked of me, what can we do to tell our sons and daughters to avoid conflict with the officer during an interaction? The best way to put that is to understand that the officer is in charge at that moment,” he said.

“He or she is in charge at that moment for everyone’s safety and compliance is the best policy.”

In a state where just less than 4 percent of the population is a minority, Charleston ranks as one of the most racially diverse. Fifteen and a half percent of the city’s population is African American, but Webster said, like Ferguson, his police force doesn’t necessarily reflect that diversity.

While CPD has had successful recruitment programs in the past, Webster said the number of black officers is dwindling and they’re having trouble getting people to sign up.

“We really need a strategic plan for that and we know we’ve gotten in wrong in the past,” Webster told the group.

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Credit Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
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West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Groups were led through discussion topics.

Recruiting more black officers is one thing Webster said can help community relations. Another: more transparency. That’s why his department is researching the purchase of more than 130 officer vest cameras to tape every on-the-job interaction they have.

But from the non-policing perspective, it’s dialogue, it’s being visible in the community some believe will be the most help.

“We as clergy have direct relationships with many of the citizens of the city,” Pastor Rodney Valentine said. He’s the pastor of the Berea Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Charleston and the Shiloh Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Huntington.

“If the police department wants to communicate something to the community, they can use us to be their voice and we can also be the voice of the community to the police department.”

Both Valentine and Webster said this meeting was just the first step, a first step that was eye opening and constructive.

It’s a preventative measure, Valentine said, and he’s happy to see his community being proactive rather than reactive.


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