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Starkville Activist Group Aims to Form Citizen-Led Board to Review Police Conduct



Police Arrested the Culprit | Starkville Activist Group Aims to Form Citizen-Led Board to Review Police Conduct | Featured

In the wake of recent violence against blacks and a national outcry against racial injustice and police brutality, activists in Starkville are hoping to create a citizen-led board to review police conduct and vet police officers in the city.

Joseph Stone, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Starkville, said the idea was first brought forward during a Sunday presentation at his church to prepare protesters for a peaceful rally scheduled for Saturday.

Creating a citizen-led police review board is among the many objectives of local activist group #StarkvilleStandUp, which was formed Sunday in response to the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after white police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, Stone said.

“It was the straw that broke the camel's back,” he said.

Stone said establishing a police review board would allow citizens a chance to keep the police force in check to prevent unprovoked deaths such as Floyd's. The board could review issues citizens bring forward and work with the police department and city officials to address the problems, he said.

Apart from creating the board, the group also called for open criticism from city leaders of systemic racism, cultural sensitivity training for city and public school employees and de-escalation training for the police force.

“We are looking at doing two things: Number one, acknowledging that racism is real and systemic,” he said. “Second is acknowledging that the unjust killing of black people by police officers is very real.”

Stone said he has reached out to many city officials and community leaders about forming the board, including Police Chief Mark Ballard, Mayor Lynn Spruill and Yulanda Haddix, the Oktibbeha County branch president of the NAACP.

Ballard: ‘You just don't implement something without doing research'

Ballard said the police department, which is nationally accredited, already holds its officers to high standards. However, he said he is open to the idea of creating a board to review police conduct.

“These boards are reserved for dysfunctional police departments with a long history of problems. We are not one of them,” he said. “I will welcome the discussion … but I simply haven't had the time to look at it.”

Ballard said the decision to form a board would be up to the mayor and aldermen and it would take a lot of time to further study the issue.

“You just don't implement something without doing research, without taking a look at some of the pros and cons,” he said. “The responsibilities are tremendous.”

Spruill, who was present at the Sunday planning event, said she has asked the board of aldermen to look into every one of the group's objectives.

For now, she said, she does not see an imminent need to address the issue since the city's police department has several policies in place to assure transparent enforcement of the law, including community-oriented policing, de-escalation and sensitivity training and body cameras.

“To my knowledge, we have not had issues,” she said.

But, Spruill said she thinks the idea is worth looking into, and she will examine numerous models from other cities.

Stone said even though Starkville has not witnessed cases of police brutality, its neighboring city, Columbus, saw in 2015 the death of Ricky Ball at the hand of white police officer Canyon Boykin after Ball ran from a traffic stop. State Attorney General Lynn Fitch announced last week her office would drop the manslaughter charge against Boykin, which has sparked several peaceful protests in Columbus since Saturday.

“All of us were watching the Ricky Ball case closely,” Stone said. “We are trying to hopefully prevent anything happening in Starkville by being on the front end and forming that citizen review board.”

Police Overview Committee in Columbus

In Columbus, the city's Police Review Committee was formed in December 2015 in the wake of the Ball case. The committee consists of eight members, including Mayor Robert Smith, Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong and six citizens, each representing a ward.

Tiffany Turner, who represents Ward 4, said the board serves as a “liaison” between the police department and the community. Since the establishment of the committee, Turner said she received both citizen complaints and compliments for police officers.

Over the years, Turner said, the board has pushed for several changes to the police department, including interviewing police chiefs in front of the public, selecting “home-grown officers” familiar with the community and better body camera policies after the Ball shooting — in which case officers didn't activate their body cameras at any time during the traffic stop or ensuing incident.

The department now trains police officers to activate their cameras and can suspend or terminate officers for not doing so, The Dispatch previously reported.

“They make sure they check that body camera every shift, making sure that everybody is in compliance, making sure the conduct is the right conduct,” she said.

The ad hoc committee usually meets once each quarter, or more often as needed, and has been asked to review cases of potential policy violations by officers, then recommend whether there should be discipline.

There has been more effective communication between the police department and the public over the years, said Colin Krieger, representative from Ward 5.

In 2017, Krieger pushed for more comprehensive information to be released to the public from the department, citing the concern that there might have been a misperception within the community that crimes took place randomly when they did not, The Dispatch reported. Now, information CPD releases on violent crimes indicate whether the victim and perpetrator knew each other.

“I think the police department has done an excellent job explaining to the public about when a crime happened it wasn't just a random crime,” he said. “The press release from the police department used to say, ‘Hey, somebody got shot,' leaving (the impression) that the city may be dangerous.”

Since the committee brought up the issue, he said, the police department has been sending out “better information quickly.”

The committee, he said, is a platform for the police to disseminate information and for the public to address their concerns.

“It's a good sounding board for the public,” he said.

© Copyright 2020, The Commercial Dispatch, All Rights Reserved.

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