Special to South Florida Times
OPA-LOCKA — On the heels of the recent fatal shooting of two Miami-Dade County police detectives in Liberty City, a panel discussion hosted by the NAACP on Monday turned to the state of the relationship between police and residents.
The consensus from the discussion, on the theme “A State of Emergency… A Community in Crisis,” was that the relationship is in trouble.
Panelist Richard P. Dunn, a pastor and Miami city commissioner said that there is a historical breakdown between the police and black communities.
“I’m not saying who’s right or who’s wrong, just that it’s a breakdown,” Dunn said. “And you have some police leaders, chiefs, who refuse to put [police officers] in a black community or say that there are no black officers qualified to serve in their own community. That’s part of the problem.”
Carlos J. Martinez, another panelist, who is the Miami-Dade County public defender, said distrust of law enforcement is not peculiar to the black community.
“There are a lot of challenges regarding how young people view the police in every community,” Martinez said.
There is a pervasive idea among young people, black, white, Hispanic, rich or poor that it is OK to run from the police, Martinez said. “This tells me that they are not seeing the police as someone they can trust,” he said.
The discussion followed the installation of the newly elected officers of the Miami-Dade branch of the civil rights organization at New Birth Baptist Church Cathedral of Faith International, 2300 NW 135th St., Opa-locka.
Bishop Victor T. Curry, who founded the church and is its leader, was installed as president after being re-elected to the post a few days earlier.
“This dialogue was planned even before the horrific incident [Liberty City police shooting] last Thursday,” said Curry, who moderated the panel discussion. “But if we don’t sit down and talk, on both sides, then we are never going to fix what is being mentioned here.”
The police, Curry said, are going to be viewed as the enemy and as someone who protects and serves only affluent white, upper-class people, with the black community regarded as a jungle.
“Therefore, their mentality to come [to the black community] is diametrically opposite of their approach to any other community,” Curry said.
African-American men who carry guns, Curry said, do not want to wage war with the police department. “And that is not going to be a good fight. No one wants to say it but that’s where we are headed,” he said.
Other panelists included Pastor Gregory Thompson; District 2 School Board Member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall; the
Rev. Dr. Billie W.L. Strange Jr., North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre and Police Chief Stephen Johnson, Miami Police Assistant Chief Roy Brown and Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina.
Miami Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Miami Police Chief Miguel Exposito were invited but did not attend.
Martinez said that he feels the community is a powder keg. “People are so angry on both sides. It’s been years since I heard the N-word used by someone I would speak to. And, since Friday, I’ve heard it twice. It’s [because of] that kind of gut reaction that people are having why we all need to step back and try to tone it down, bring peace across our neighborhoods, because we have to work with law enforcement.”
Brown said one major issue faced in the communities is the presence of assault weapons. “You can get them on the Internet,” he said. “That weapon is designed for one thing: to kill people.”
Between July 5 and Dec. 31, 2010, Brown said, there were six fatal police shootings in the city of Miami and two in New York City. “So, we do have issues to work on. It’s a major concern,” he said.
According to Pierre, the problem begins with the leadership. “We need more community policing, [to] add more programs for our children,” he said.
Johnson said as North Miami police chief, “I had to really take a look. And I think that every chief in Dade County has to do the same thing. We need to face reality. We don’t have a good rapport with the community.”
Johnson said he knows now every officer approaches citizens in the manner in which they should. “I have put policies in place to make sure that we have good communication with our community because our reputation is not good at all,” he added.
At the same time, Johnson said, “I’m angry because we just buried two police officers. And when I go to church, I’m angry again because young black males are being shot and killed.”
Strange said that he officiated at an average of two funerals per week last year and at least 30 were young men who were killed.
“There is a lack of respect from the police department and this thing is serious,” Strange said. “We need to stop talking about it and start doing something about it.”
Robaina agreed, saying that “it is about communicating and putting the right people together, the right leadership.”
“We can’t sit around and expect someone else to do it,” he said. “We need a solution.”
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net.
Photo: Victor Curry