School issue sparks discussion on race, police

Tuesday’s heated Dayton school board meeting was focused on two $5,000 contracts, but spotlighted a larger issue – the strained relationship between black residents and local law enforcement agencies.

The group Racial Justice Now, which is active in school issues, asked Dayton Public Schools to cancel its contracts with Dayton Police and the Montgomery County Sheriff to monitor high school games and events.

“We can appreciate the idea of protecting young people and other community members,” RJN’s statement read. “However, where we disagree is that the police provides that ‘protection,’ especially in low-income black communities.”

After 17 residents shared versions of that opinion — including priority board chairman David Greer, civil rights activist Richard Cox and law professor Vernellia Randall — the school board agreed to hold another meeting in the coming weeks to debate those contracts.

Four years after the city of Dayton formed a Community Police Council, aiming to improve trust and accountability, there’s still a long way to go. Katy Crosby, director of Dayton’s Human Relations Council, which oversees the CPC, said it’s very hard to make progress.

“You have a lot of history around poor community police relations that have not been resolved,” Crosby said. “You have some folks who say, we’ve historically been treated badly. Then (police) may say, ‘I wasn’t there when this happened, so why are you putting this on me? I’m trying to protect and serve the community, but you’re telling me you don’t want me there.’ ”

That idea — that many black residents see police as a threat and don’t want them around their children — was pervasive Tuesday night. Speakers referenced everything from police behavior at 1960s riots, to profiling of kids walking down the street, to high-profile police shootings.

But that shunning of police is not unanimous. Tosha Madison, who lives in Westwood, cited a rise in drug crime and robberies hurting her neighborhood, and said she wants to see police patrolling more actively near her home.

“Yes, trust is at an all-time low with police right now, especially if you’re black,” Madison said. “I guess there needs to be some active dialogue between police and the community to build up to trust. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if police are patrolling more, you’ll know them, talk to them.”

Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said police presence in schools has historically been an important element in improving school safety and understanding between police and youth. Asked whether Dayton Police have a record of dealing fairly with young black men, Biehl said that answer would best come from the youths themselves. He said Dayton PD is working on a survey that will ask people’s perception of police, but results are far off.

Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, director of Racial Justice Now, said her group’s criticisms are “not an indictment of any entire police department,” saying there are always officers who do the right thing.

“But when you look at the numbers, we can’t ignore history and the community’s experience with police,” she said.

That recent history includes two Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies fired for racist texts and a Fairborn officer suspended for a social media taunt about the death of a Black Lives Matter activist.

It also includes three high-profile deaths where some black leaders felt justice was not served. The Department of Justice cleared Dayton police of wrongdoing in the death of Kylen English, and DOJ is still reviewing Beavercreek police’s actions in the death of John Crawford. A grand jury voted not to indict two Montgomery County Sheriff’s deputies in the death of Dontae Martin.

Biehl said limiting interaction between police and black youth is not the answer. He said when all stakeholders in an area work together to identify safety problems, get involved and create a plan to solve them, good things happen.

“It goes back to the issue of building relationships,” Biehl said. “Once there’s an opportunity for direct, face-to-face contact, in a non-enforcement situation, a lot of that distrust can be addressed constructively and we can get past those issues.”

Crosby said the Community Police Council, formed after the Kylen English death, tries to do that, with community activities ranging from spaghetti dinners with police, poetry slams for youth, and neighborhood conversations about knowing your rights with police.

“Both sides have to be open to being honest and receiving the feedback of each other so we can improve the relationship,” she said. “That’s the hardest part — everybody is hurt in this process, and they’re not ready to receive what the other has to say.”

School board member Robert Walker emphasized that point Tuesday night, saying that at the next DPS meeting on the “cops at games” issue, residents and board members need to make sure they hear and understand each other.

Superintendent Lori Ward said DPS’ contracts with law enforcement were the suggestion of the district’s athletic board of control, after fights and other incidents at sporting events this year and last year.

Dayton police officials said their officers already spend some time in schools mentoring and talking to students. Biehl also said there has to be a plan to deal with incidents at games when they happen. Several residents suggested there are alternatives besides police.

“We have mentors in this room who can do you a much better job at a basketball game or in your school buildings,” said Jerome McCorry, who helps ex-offenders via the Adam Project. “We have greater success than you can have with handcuffs.”

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