The name “George Floyd” has garnered a deeper meaning for what it’s like to be a black American in today's society. For some, his name is reminiscent of just another racially charged act of police brutality that was caught on camera. For others, his name could symbolize a turning point for systemic racism in the U.S.
In the wake of the national conversation about police violence, Harrisonburg and JMU campus police chiefs, students and professors discussed ways to rethink policing in Harrisonburg and how to rebuild community trust with the police. Daerenz Lyons, vice president of the JMU branch of NAACP, and Leeyah Jackson, communications specialist at JMU center for civic engagement, recounted their experiences with police in Harrisonburg and shed light on the racial injustices that exist on a much larger scale.
“Being black, your life revolves around being taught how to act around police,” Lyons said. “Oftentimes when we’re pulled over and have to interact with police, it’s like our mind is so focused on all the things we have to do to stay alive.”
Tears streamed down Jackson’s face as she spoke about the injustices she said she experienced at the hands of the Harrisonburg police department. Her voice choked up as she said how the police humiliated her and her friends by making them leave the bathroom door open as they used it because the officers told them they “weren’t trusted to use the restroom.”
“We were left that night feeling dehumanized and alone, and of course, who are we going to tell,” Jackson said.
When speaking about her experience and how the police could do better, Jackson said she feels police reforms that have been done in the past haven’t worked because “the foundation is off.” She said that redirecting some of the funds from the police to mental health services and other community based necessities could positively impact the police and citizens.
“It’s [police reform] like putting bandaids on a broken house,” Jackson said.
Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English said he agreed that the police aren’t the most equipped to handle mental health situations and those funds could be redirected to mental health service providers especially because these providers have seen cutbacks in funding.
“All of my officers go through CIT [crisis intervention team] training so we’re trained to de-escalate those situations, but at the same time, I don’t know if an armed individual should be the person that approaches somebody in a mental health crisis,” English said.
English said that he feels people aren’t angry with him as a person, but rather they’re mad at law enforcement as a whole because of racially unjust encounters some have had with the police. He said that this mistrust is among the things they must try to rebuild as a police department to have a better relationship with the community.
To promote transparency, accountability and equity between police and the community, English said that HPD posts its policies on its website and requires each officer to wear body cameras. JMU campus police chief Kevin Lanoue said the JMU police department has a complaint tracking process and has body cameras on their police officers, which help hold the department accountable.
“It’s not an agency where we’re trying to hide anything — we want people to know what is going on, we want them to have that information,” English said.
Lanoue said the department’s officers and policies are constantly reviewed to keep the officers educated on ways to best combat racism. He said JMU PD has formal evaluations by outsiders that come and examine every aspect of the department to remain accredited.
“Another huge benefit we have is being here at the university because many of our officers are actually pursuing education slowly, but surely while they’re here,” Lanoue said. “Racism seems to be inversely proportional to education so the more we can educate ourselves, the less likely we will have racism in our ranks.”
English said the HPD goes through state-mandated certification every two years to ensure safe and just practices. He also said that during recruit training officers attend a course that educates officers on fair and impartial policing. Benjamin Blankenship, assistant JMU psychology professor, talked about implicit bias that everyone has, so English said this course could help eliminate that in the officers.
“White privilege is a huge part of the problem in why we have so much inequality with policing and in other realms like education and healthcare,” Blankenship said. “As a white man walking down the street late at night, I don’t have to be afraid if I see a police officer.”
Blankenship said that this is an example of privilege that white people sometimes don’t see or understand. Lyons said that the best way to combat racial injustice in the U.S. is by taking action.
“I don’t want this [Black Lives Matter] to be a trending topic just because of the current state of the nation,” Lyons said. “We can talk all day long, but taking action is going to be the biggest thing to start making a change.”