Cambridge citizens discuss police, race relations

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper Dion Banks opens the meeting at Bethel AME Church, to discuss race relations in Cambridge. In light of recent police murders in Dallas and Baton Rouge, relations between the police and the city was the main topic of the evening.

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Dion Banks opens the meeting at Bethel AME Church, to discuss race relations in Cambridge. In light of recent police murders in Dallas and Baton Rouge, relations between the police and the city was the main topic of the evening.

CAMBRIDGE — Shocking videos of black men dying at the hands of police, and officers being shot in retaliation have strained race relations across the country. Even Cambridge, with its lingering reputation as an “isolated” community, feels the strain; and local community leaders decided to take matters into hand on July 20, and call for a town hall-style meeting to promote communication between local citizens and police.

Since a lack of understanding always grows from a lack of communication, two area citizens felt a need to create the Eastern Shore Network for Change (ESNC) to promote communication within the community. Kisha Petticolas, a public defender in Talbot County, and Dion Banks, a recent candidate for the Ward 4 city commissioner’s seat, got together to form ESNC, with a mission to “raise awareness of issues in Dorchester County, Maryland and creatively work with the community to inform, educate, and foster change.”

Cambridge is no stranger to racial strife. This small city of 12,000 souls grew into civil rights national prominence just short of 50 years ago. In 1967, a summer of riots and virtual military law kept Cambridge on edge and resulted in the burning of scores of buildings on Pine Street and nearby. In many ways, Cambridge has never gotten over the strife of the ‘60s, and remains a tinderbox of bad feelings towards uniformed authority.

Though institutionalized racism is a thing of the past, and society has endured and accepted integration of races in daily life, the City of Cambridge still struggles.

“I graduated from Mace’s Lane High School in 1967,” said Greg Meekins. “And just thinking about what happened in 1967, the year I graduated — it has been embedded in my head for years. I left here, went to college, but I came back home in 1979. And it was like this place stood still in time. Even in 2016, there are pieces of this city, and the county, that still stands still in time.”

Caring citizens of the City of Cambridge know that the conversation has to take place between all of the citizens of Cambridge, black, white, and brown, but with the national news emphasis now being put squarely on police relations, the discussion in Cambridge’s Bethel Church on Wednesday quickly went in that direction.

Cambridge Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley opened the meeting, praising the effort to communicate, and pledging the full support of the Mayor’s office. Chief Dan Dvorak was next introduced and demonstrated that he was aware of the disconnect that plagues Cambridge.

“We are a community in pain, and we are searching for answers,” said Chief Dvorak, and he went on to quote Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “’People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.’ So let’s not let that happen with us.”

Chief Dan said that he hoped that in the past year and a half that he’s convinced everybody who he is, and he hopes everybody knows that they can talk to him, that they can trust him. “We need to continue the dialog. I’ve heard a few complaints over the last year and a half, about officers’ conduct, and I think I should hear more — have more people calling me. The few things I’ve heard about, we’ve acted on every single one, and turned them into a positive, into a learning moment for an officer. We need to communicate, and that’s all I ask of you today.”

The conversation began from there. A number of people stood up and commented on their view of race relations. One early speaker, a Mr. Jackson, pointed out that “Racism isn’t something you are born with. In the elementary schools the little kids don’t know black from white, they don’t care about black and white. Racism is taught in the homes and the communities. The conversations need to begin in the homes and the communities.”

Mr. Jackson commented on a recent vehicle stop for a burnt out tail light, and was annoyed when the officer was brusque and asked if he was the owner of the car. Mr. Jackson was insulted to think that the police officer would think that the car was stolen or that he wouldn’t be expected to be driving a Mercedes.

Sgt. Antoine Patton of the Cambridge Police responded and pointed out that police interaction on a vehicle stop is initially strained because the police don’t know what they’re dealing with when approaching a car. He invited everyone to an event the police department had planned for Saturday afternoon, explaining police procedures and why traffic stops are conducted the way they are.

Another speaker agreed there were reasons why police had to act the way they do on a traffic stop, but the complaint was not with the “what,” but with the “how.” She urged sensitivity training for police, to make interaction less stressful.

The rest of the speakers echoed similar sentiments. One speaker called for transparent accountability with police, and leaving the meeting with an action plan “so that more happens than just a conversation again.” He had attended a similar meeting in 2011, and said that everyone left the meeting feeling good but then nothing changed afterwards. “I am very grateful for this conversation,” he said, “but also for an action plan.”

Ms. Petticolas pointed out there was indeed an action plan being formed, that the ESNC had spoken to Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley before the meeting, and asked that the mayor would create a city-wide commission on race relations. All of the logistics of the new commission and actionable items were still to be worked out, but that the new commission would be a mechanism to measure what was being accomplished.

City Manager Sandra Tripp-Jones pointed out that a new citizen’s feedback page on the city’s ChooseCambridge.com website was another place where concerned citizens can submit comments and complaints. For folks without computers, she stressed that anyone with a question can also call the city, and to call the City Manager if all else fails. She said it’s harder to remain anonymous that way, but that the city will do all they can to respect a citizen’s desire for anonymity.

The meeting continued for almost two hours, with a lot more needing to be said. The ESNC was pleased with the turnout and promised more in the future. “We would like to thank the over 150 people who attended. We hope that tonight’s conversation sparks many more conversations between people in our community,” said Dion Banks. “There are follow-up meetings with stakeholders planned over the next few weeks.”

Chief Dan responds
By Police Chief Dan Dvorak

I was pleased with the turnout at the Bethel AME Church, and impressed with the public’s support of the police department. I appreciated learning how some people feel during their interactions with police officers and was reminded again how perceptions can differ, even among those in the same line of work.

For example, Mr. Jackson said he was pulled over by a police officer for having a tail light out. When the officer asked if he owned this car, Mr. Jackson felt offended because the officer either thought it was stolen or he shouldn’t be driving a Mercedes. Sergeant Patton spoke up and said he would ask that question because he wants to know if the driver knows where the registration is. Because if the driver isn’t the owner then he doesn’t want him searching around for the registration certificate.

And I have a completely different perspective. When I pull a vehicle over for an equipment violation, I ask the driver if he or she is the owner. If the driver is the owner, I say he or she needs to fix the light. If the driver isn’t the owner, I tell him or her to let the owner know the light needs to be fixed. I won’t hold a driver as responsible for repairing the vehicle as I would the owner.

There still needs to be more dialogue. I appreciate hearing from people how we can communicate better, but I also need to explain that during some instances we need to take charge to keep ourselves and others safe. Some situations require issuing orders and others allow us to explain ourselves. Regardless of the situation, it is my responsibility to hold officers accountable and sometimes mediate a conflict. During this discussion I asked everyone to contact me if they feel something in a situation went wrong. I will investigate and make sure officers followed department policy, but often times just a discussion when we aren’t in the heat of the moment is sufficient to explain our actions.

I was disappointed we ran out of time on Wednesday night before I had a chance to make a closing statement. I wanted to let everyone know that:

• I’ve asked officers to build relationships with the people in their patrol districts, and residents should do the same. Everyone has “implicit bias,” which is where you fill in what you don’t know about someone with what you’ve learned in the past. I intend to have officers interact with residents so they can get to know each other, which will improve interaction in the future.

• People can call me anonymously, however it is better when I can ask questions and get a good handle on the complaint. They can also text me anonymously through the “MyPD” app on their smartphone. They can call 410-228-3784 to make an anonymous complaint, and they can call 911 and tell the dispatcher they wish to remain anonymous.

• Someone said we need to empathize. The best way to get officers to relate to the people they serve is to hire officers from Cambridge. But we get very few applications from our residents.

• Someone said it is easy to become a police officer. It is not easy. We conduct a rigorous interview and background check, which includes a polygraph and psychological exam, and try to hire only the best candidates.

• Someone said officers turn their body cameras on an off during an incident, or don’t turn it on at all. I have seen no evidence of this, and if anyone thinks it is happening they need to contact me.

I’d like to hear more from our residents, and any church or civic group that would like me to speak (and listen) is welcome to contact me at 410-901-8446.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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