With the national upheaval in the past year following the murder of George Floyd focusing attention on demands for criminal justice and policing reform, local leaders say meaningful change can only come about through steady, persistent effort across a range of related challenges.
This work is at the core of the formation of the United Way’s Greenville Racial Equity and Economic Mobility (REEM) Commission and its Criminal Justice Reform Committee, co-chaired by former interim director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Karen Baynes-Dunning, and Greenville Police Chief Howie Thompson.
In a virtual discussion sponsored by the recently-created Conversations on Racial Reconciliation and Unity special interest group in April, Dunning spoke on the magnitude and historic roots of racial disparities confronting America’s communities and the inherent challenges in addressing systemic problems.
The discussion coincided with former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s conviction in Floyd’s death and the police-related killing of a Black man in North Carolina.
“This has been quite a week as we try to unpack all that has happened,” Dunning said. “The killing of black people by police continues.”
Dunning outlined the long history of policing in America and how, from the slavery-era to the establishment of Jim Crow laws and through the tumult of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, the structure of law enforcement was designed to treat Black citizens and communities unequally.
“Trust was never established,” she said.
Trying to overcome that distrust is at the heart of efforts from groups like REEM and the citizens advisory panel formed by city council after the Floyd killing to evaluate policies and procedures at the Greenville Police Department. Chief Thompson said that the ongoing dialogue between his department and such groups as well as members of the community is crucial to making meaningful change.
Such work has led to policy changes at the department like implementing duty-to-intervene obligations for officers who witness colleagues using excessive force and adding implicit bias training for all officers.
“Obviously, there’s a lot to be done, but this is how you get it done — by bringing people to the table,” Thompson said. “We are trying to hit this from all angles to see what we can do better … we’re trying everything we can to build that transparency.”
He said mistrust of the police in some communities is a long-standing problem that will take concerted, earnest efforts to overcome.
“I’m a realist. I know that there are some segments of the community that don’t trust the police,” Thompson said. “You can’t brush that off.”
Dunning says problems of policing and bias in the criminal justice system took a long time to develop and will take a long time to correct.
“(REEM doesn’t) just want to produce another report that will sit on a shelf,” Dunning said. “We want to produce sustainable action … this is not going to be an overnight process.”
Dunning said this disconnect in experiences stems from historically Black communities that have been policed more aggressively than white communities. When everyone in a community feels treated like a suspect rather than a citizen, the problem points to a system where bias is inherent, she said.
The fundamental disconnect between the typical experiences of white Americans and Black Americans when it comes to interactions with police is one of the key challenges to meaningful policing reform, said Bishop Sam Zimmerman, first vice president of the Greenville chapter of the NAACP and a member of the REEM Criminal Justice Reform Committee.
“We do have a race issue,” Zimmerman said. “As long as we’re not able to articulate it in a manner that those who don’t experience it can understand, progress on the issue will be hard to achieve.”
“The problems are very complex,” Zimmerman said. “I do have a sense that progress is being made.”