ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – The conversation surrounding the death of George Floyd hasn’t stopped and on Friday, local leaders channeled that discussion as part of a town hall focused on police and community relations.
The 90-minute virtual chat kicked off at 3 p.m. with each of the 10 panelists vocalizing how they felt seeing the video of Floyd with a white officer’s knee pinned to his neck.
Most of the guest speakers were black men and women and some of them noted that they’ve also had unpleasant encounters with law enforcement officers.
Pastor Roderick Zak from Rejoice in the Lord Ministries said that’s been a problem for him and the 2,000 members of his church.
“We get stopped and pulled over and disrespected, you know, we have master’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees and all kinds of things. So something has to change in terms of the fear and apprehension that we’re experiencing -- just common everyday folk,” Zak said.
His solution was finding a way to automate the ticketing process to make traffic stops safer for both residents and officers.
Orange County NAACP chapter president Beverlye Colson Neal made it clear for the get-go that she’s tired of hearing stories time and time again about people of color being mistreated at the hands of officers and by society as a whole.
“Like I said we’re here, we’re not afraid to fight and... we are done dying,” Neal said.
Her biggest gripe was with collective bargaining agreements, which she feels can protect officers who do wrong from losing their jobs. Creating a system or database that could track officers’ use of force and those accused of misconduct was something multiple panelists said they’d like to see.
Tackling those systemic problems is what Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala said she’s been working on during her time in office.
She listed programs that she’s helped establish, including: a Brady policy, a conviction integrity unit, a drug diversion program, Project No/No for juvenile offenders and working to revise the use of force policy as well as enacting a new nonmonetary bail policy for nonviolent offenders.
Rep. Val Demings said steps like those that were taken prior to Floyd’s death have put the Central Florida region in a better spot when it comes to race relations than some other areas of the country.
“We know that America is on fire but I thank God that Orlando is not on fire. And I believe that Orlando is not on fire, Orange County’s not on fire, because of work that has been done in our community long before May 25,” Val Demings said.
The former Orlando police chief spoke on the panel alongside her husband, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, who prior to taking office served as sheriff.
State Rep. Kamia Brown agreed that progress has been made locally but in no way is the area ready to stop evolving, progressing and changing for the better.
“We have done the work here, but there is way more work to be done,” Brown said.
Her calls for improvements focused on pumping resources, economic and otherwise, into hot spots, improving community relations with officers, creating an inspector general type position that could examine fraud and misconduct in law enforcement agencies, creating a public database to examine use of force and other similar issues and allowing the public to provide input when it comes to hearings for officers.
“I have a serious issue with many of our law enforcement agencies being judged and disciplined by their peers or investigated by their peers. I know we have our chiefs that kind of make a decision, but I think it’s important that we bring in citizens to also really look at those issues,” Brown said.
During the last 30 minutes of the discussion it came time for the panelists to answer questions from the community. Most were directed toward Orlando Police Chief Orlando Rolon and Orange County Sheriff John Mina.
Due to time constraints, only three questions were answered but the moderators said they plan to get answers for the rest and post them at OCFL.net/MLK.
Given the recent protests and body camera footage showing Orlando police officers using tear gas, one viewer asked when the agency deems that kind of tactic as an appropriate response.
Rolon said ultimately the goal with using tear gas or another chemical agent such as pepper spray is to reduce contact with a suspect since that’s when situations tend to turn violent.
Even still, Rolon said 15 officers have been injured during the ongoing protests.
“So, it is the last thing that we want to do and whenever there is a situation that comes up, where gas has to be deployed, actually, we don’t even start with gas. We start with smoke when the situation rises to that level,” Rolon said.
He said recently, the tear gas was used in response to protesters throwing rocks, bottles and sharp objects.
Another point brought up during the Q&A was the use of a citizens review board, which the Orlando Police Department and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office both have. However, their power is limited to making suggestions and providing input rather than actually enacting policy change.
Rolon said regardless, he takes their opinion seriously and has made adjustments to procedures when appropriate.
In terms of what else the two agencies are doing to be proactive before the recent unrest, the sheriff and the chief mentioned requiring officers and deputies to undergo extensive training on deescalation tactics and inherit biases. Now given recent events, both also plan to look at their internal procedures and see what needs to be changed.
Other suggestions from the 10 panelists included creating an open line of communication for members of the community with law enforcement agencies, regularly screening officers for potential mental health or violence issues and that they are able to pass a background check before even starting the job, creating hiring policies that ensure departments are as diverse as the communities they represent and sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system as a whole to stop minorities from being unfairly penalized.
As far as what the everyday citizen can do, the panelists urged them to participate in local processes by voting, staying engaged with current events, taking part in peaceful protests, volunteering, mentoring those who need it and making sure their voices are heard, especially when it comes to reporting an officer’s misconduct.
“Do not just simply look for the moment. Look for the opportunity to have a lifestyle of change, a life of service to this community, and when we all do that together we will come out of these current situation, better, safer and stronger together,” the mayor said.
Jerry Demings ended Friday evening’s discussion with a thank you to members of the community, assuring them that he is listening and he knows this conversation is just one of many more to come that will lead to change.
“We are listening to you. We hear you. We see you. We want to understand the things that you have concerns about in this community. And I believe that I have consistently, with those of us who are in leadership roles here within this community, elected and otherwise, that we are solidly committed to doing something about the current state of affairs in America when it comes to injustices by anyone, but certainly the people of color who have been disproportionately impacted by the things of the recent past,” Jerry Demings said.