By Shawn Nowlin
Discussions about the relationship between the police and African American community are happening all over the country. Over a six-month period, an in-depth report by the Equitable Policing Coalition found that black drivers throughout the Roanoke Valley were more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested by police than their white counterparts.
It was the Rev. Kevin McNeil of Bethany Christian Church, also the Equitable Policing Coalition co-chair, who presented the findings of the report, which unveiled:
*Black drivers were nearly two times as likely as white drivers to be stopped
*White drivers were two times less likely to have their vehicles searched
*Black drivers were almost three times as likely to be arrested
When he moved to Roanoke two decades ago, McNeil says city police pulled him over more than ten times, including one instance as he backed out into his own driveway.
More than 45 people gathered at the Melrose Library on April 30 to participate in an open conversation event titled “Can Trust Be Built Between the Police and African American Community?” Among the attendees were Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea and three other council members.
Retired Radford University Criminal Justice Professor Dr. Bakhitah Abdul-Ra’uf spoke to the audience for nearly 45 minutes. A Ph.D. graduate from the University of South Florida, Abdul-Ra’uf’s research interests include comparative criminal justice systems, police-community relations, social justice mediation (training certificate, U of Mass, Amherst) and Shari’a (Islamic Law). She’s also conducted extensive ethnographic studies for law enforcement in both Virginia and Florida.
In her view, Abdul-Ra’uf explained that law enforcement desperately needs more diversity training, a comment that some disagreed with.
“My research allowed me to observe and describe the police. A lot of what you’re going to hear today is part of that description. Most of my presentations have been to other researchers. I tweaked this presentation specifically for this occasion,” Abdul-Ra’uf said. “We all know that incidents involving conflict between African Americans and police officers have been precipitating factors in most of the recent civil disorders in the United States. More diversity training is desperately needed.”
She added, “As with many communities, complaints from leaders of national and local African American communities and other organizations allege that the police routinely use excessive force against members of minority populations. The facts bear that out.”
Towards the end of the discussion, attendees were given an opportunity to respond to anything said during the event. When President of the Roanoke NAACP Branch Brenda Hale was given the microphone, she passionately spoke about the number discrepancies.
“The community can’t feel safe now. You still have racial profiling. You can’t deny history and what it has overwhelmingly shown us. A change must come,” Hale said. “When you are socialized to believe one thing about a particular group that is not true, it makes it nearly impossible for true progress to ever be made.”
Recently, Dr. Abdul-Ra’uf authored The Blacksburg VA Police Department: A Model of Professionalism and Social Justice in the Law Enforcement Executive Forum Journal.