ASU Hosts Virtual Forum on Community Policing
By Hazel Scott
Alabama State University’s Department of Criminal and Social Justice hosted a virtual forum on Wednesday, July 8, to discuss policing within local communities in the 21st century.
The guest panelists were Montgomery Police Chief Ernest N. Finley Jr., Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham, Prattville Assistant Chief Diane Thomas and ASU Police Chief Kelvin Kendrick. Other panelists were ASU criminal justice members Dr. Brenda Gill, ASU professor of sociology; Dr. Larry Spencer, assistant professor; Alana Williams-Norman, instructor; and Ashley Roseboro, adjunct instructor.
The forum was broadcast using the Zoom platform, with an audience that included students, parents, faculty, staff, members of the River Region community and former Montgomery Police Chief Art Baylor, who is an adjunct professor at ASU.
Forum topics ranged from racial injustice and the use of excessive force to police training and accountability. The speakers also touched on George Floyd, whose death has led to nationwide calls for police reform.
“ASU decided to partner with our local law enforcement administrators to facilitate an open dialogue for faculty, students and the community to openly and positively discuss some of the issues that minorities are facing when making contact with law enforcement personnel,” said Williams-Norman, the moderator of the event.
In the wake of recent incidents involving police use of force, Finley said the legitimacy of the police has been questioned in many communities.
"We are in the process of forging a better relationship with the Rosa Parks Museum as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center to talk about those hard issues -- race and sensitivity issues -- and talk about those other issues we don't like to talk about, but need to," Finley said. "We are looking to partner with ASU in order for the University to devise a training program for police officers in the River Region.”
He pointed out that strong relationships of mutual trust between police agencies and the communities are critical to maintaining public safety and effective policing.
Thomas said the Prattville department would welcome local training.
"We have to travel to the far end of the state for…training. If ASU makes training available, we would send our officers and perhaps even some of the chiefs to get sensitivity training. I think a lot of law enforcement agencies will send their people,” said Thomas.
Cunningham said the University has had police training partnerships in the past and the Sheriff’s Department has continued its connection with the University.
“Our department still utilizes ASU's Theatre Department students for our Crisis Intervention Training classes. They are our role players,” Cunningham said.
All the panelists agreed that it's important for officers to go through de-escalation, sensitivity, cultural and diversity training.
"These types of training are vital to de-escalating a crisis situation without using force," Cunningham said.
When asked about the nationwide demands to defund police departments after the death of George Floyd, the panelists agreed that defunding is not the answer.
Finley said the Montgomery Police Department is implementing an innovative method of handling crisis situations within local communities.
“Training is the absolute necessity that we need to really build and engage the community in a better way,” Finley said. “We have established a pilot program where Montgomery will have a Mobile Crisis Team of three officers trained to handle some of the calls that don't need police intervention -- schizophrenia or someone in crisis. They will have a degree in sociology of something along that line. It's not about putting people in jail; it's about getting them the services they need.”
Finley pointed out that the MPD has changed its use-of-force policies amid national calls for reform. The key policy change involves an officer's ability to intervene during the use of excessive force. Previously, only supervisors had that authority.
“We’re empowering all employees to do the right thing each and every time they see an issue that’s out of bounds or out of policy,” he explained. “They need to step up and really address those issues that deal with that thin blue line.”
The Montgomery Police Department currently has a use-of-force policy, which requires officers to exhaust all other methods of force before discharging their duty weapon during a conflict. De-escalation techniques will be a key focus through multiple rounds of upcoming training.
Kendrick said ASU is working with law enforcement agencies in the tri-county area to establish a training program for law enforcement officers. The program would also include career selection benefits for students in the University’s criminal justice program.
"We should have representation from Prattville, MPD and the Sheriff Departments to validate that training. Once we solidify those programs that we want to do, we can make it happen. It's about partnership," Kendrick said.
Another forum topic focused on the surge in crime in area communities, Thomas said neighborhoods must get involved.
"We can't do it all. All of us working together and communicating can make our communities safer," Thomas emphasized.
The forum culminated with talks about a future symposium on ASU’s campus for the community and the judicial, educational and law enforcement systems.
"We hope the virtual forum was informative about how police administrators are addressing community issues," said Williams-Norman.