The National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers was already going to focus its annual fall training conference — taking place in Philadelphia this week — on how police departments can go from warriors to guardians of the communities they serve.
Organizers said their mission only grew in urgency when a white officer fatally shot Atatiana Jefferson, who was black, in her Fort Worth, Texas home while she was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew. The officer was responding to an “open structure call” from one of her neighbors, who noticed a front door was open early on a Saturday morning.
“The commonly used phrase ‘senseless tragedy’ is pathetically inadequate to describe the police killing of someone whose only transgression was sitting at home caring for a young child,” said Charles Wilson, NABLEO’s national chairman.
Wilson said the shooting has brought out “unbridled rage” among people already concerned about the state of policing.
Officer Aaron Dean, who resigned the force and was later charged with murder, walked up to Jefferson’s window with a flashlight and body camera footage shows he did not introduce himself.
The noises at her window made Jefferson take out her handgun, but it’s unclear if Dean saw it before he yelled, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!”
He pulled the trigger shortly after that.
“We must ask what are the principal issues that have to be addressed to change the culture of law enforcement so we can regain the trust respect and legitimacy of our communities,” said Wilson.
For Wilson, regaining that trust requires departments to address shortcomings in training and hiring. This year’s conference aims to do that with sessions such as Eliminating Microaggressions To Enhance Police-Community Engagement, Fair and Impartial Policing Through Understanding Implicit Bias, and An Anatomy of A Fatal Use of Force.
More than 100 participants of all races and backgrounds are slated to attend the conference, which is in Philadelphia through Thursday.
Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League and Democratic nominee for Philadelphia sheriff, said the conference is a way for law enforcement to get its marching orders and make changes at home.
“We outraged [because] no one should act in a split second, not even knowing and shooting inside a facility. I believe that’s against everybody’s training across the country,” she said.
‘You have a right to remain silent — use it’
However, change can be slow and people of color interact with police all the time. That’s why NABLEO and the Guardian Civic League also hosted a community meeting at Bible Way Baptist Church in West Philly Tuesday evening to teach people what police can and can’t do during interactions — and how they should respond, in turn.
The meeting, which drew some 50 people, mostly young black men ages 14 to 20 brought in by mentoring groups, was also a safe space where people could ask some burning questions to officers who look like them — questions that demonstrated just how distrustful the community is of those charged with protecting them.
“Why y’all gotta be so extra?” asked one young man from the pews regarding routine stops that end with black men tossed on the ground.
When an officer responded by saying he and his colleagues often don’t know what kind of scenario they’re walking into or what a suspect might have on their person in terms of weapons, another man quickly responded, “I feel like that’s an excuse.”
Several of his peers backed him up. The young men said they understood not all police are bad, but they wanted to know how so many get away with abusing their power.
Raheem Williams, 20, was one of these young men. He heard about the meeting through his mentor group.
He had to step out and take a break 10 minutes into the session. Williams felt the conversation ignored his friends’ lived experiences.
The negative ones, Williams said, gave him a bleaker view of policing in Philly and across the country.
“[Police] still doing the B.S., the hurt to our people,” he said. “All this that [organizers] doing, trying to get us to be cool with the cops and respect stuff is B.S. because when years go by, we’re going to be going through the cycle.”
And NABLEO’s Wilson said people have reason to be fearful. Research shows black people are nearly three times as likely and Hispanics nearly twice as likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts, and they’re more likely to be unarmed.
Still, the young men did leave with some practical advice for what to do when they are stopped by police.
Using role-playing exercises all too familiar to some attendees, De Lacy D. Davis, a retired New Jersey police sergeant and founding member of NABLEO, taught them that the 1968 Supreme Court decision Terry v. Ohio makes it so they can be patted down over clothing during a search if officers have probable cause to believe that a crime is being committed.
He also explained that officers are allowed to use force for self-defense, to protect others, and to make a lawful arrest, as well as going over the documents people need to give officers if they’re ever pulled over.
But above all else, Davis urged the men to avoid escalating the encounter and get out of the situation alive to file a complaint.
“If the police is stopping you and you’re under arrest, stop talking to them,” he said. “You didn’t talk yourself into it and you can’t talk yourself out. You have a right to remain silent — use it.”
When a young man talked back to an abusive officer during a role-playing exercise, Davis interrupted.
“The real boys in the hood have on uniforms, guns, and badges, and they will hurt you. So we don’t escalate this to the point of weapons being drawn,” he told the room before instructing the young man to try to engage the officer in a different way.
The training the young men went over has been around for more than two decades, but it was the first time Sharon Wright was able to make it out to one. She said no one particular shooting motivated her to come.
“The history of America has proven that we’ve always been attacked,” she said, and in an ideal world, officers would be retrained.
Until that happened, Wright said it was in her best interest to know how to protect herself from authorities, “knowing still that it’s not a guarantee.”