The Wayne State Black Student Union and the Social Justice Action Committee on Policing held a virtual town hall on Oct. 15, fostering a conversation around ending police brutality.
The event, one of many as part of BSU week, featured a panel of police officers working throughout metro Detroit, community activists and a WSU professor. Community members were able to submit questions for the panel before or during the town hall.
“It troubles me that we have to have this conversation,” said Jeremiah Wheeler, BSU president and town hall moderator. “This is a conversation that we’ve been having for my entire life and I know it’s a conversation that many of you older than me have been having for your entire life.”
Organizers didn’t expect people to leave the town hall in agreement, Wheeler said, but continuing to have conversations is crucial to ending police brutality.
“We have the time, it’s been time and we cannot stop pressing until we get the solutions —until the solutions have come out,” he said.
Police officers on the panel expressed the belief that ending police brutality begins within departments, through transparency, leadership and building community relationships. This is the approach WSU Police Department Chief Anthony Holt takes, he said.
“This is not rocket science to me. To affect change, you have to have a very transparent community orientated police department, where we're open enough that you could bring issues to us and we can respond to those issues with involvement to come to a solution,” Holt said.
Police chiefs determine the tone and policy that a department operates under, Southfield Chief of Police Elvin Barren said.
“If you don't have courageous leadership, the policies really mean nothing,” he said. Courageous leadership takes the form of supervisors monitoring behavior and holding officers accountable when standards are not followed.
Solutions to ending police killings and violence can be found through community support, said Nakia-Renne Wallace, WSU graduate and co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe. Police need to be defunded and demilitarized, with more money being given to communities to address needs that prevent crime.
“If the city and university officials were truly invested in confronting police brutality, then they would stop pouring money into police departments and surveillance technology and reallocate that money into housing, healthcare, employment and education,” WSU student activist Lloyd Simpson said.
Steps are being taken toward addressing community needs, said Kennedy Twine, NAACP SJAC chairwoman. These actions can be seen at WSU with the Heart of Detroit Tuition Pledge, offering free tuition to Detroit high school graduates and residents.
“We’re heading in the right direction, it’s just a matter of the steps and how slowly they’re being taken,” she said.
A change throughout American politics and society must be made in order to eliminate police brutality, said Ollie Johnson, WSU Department of African American Studies chair and professor. This is because police brutality is not just a police and community issue, but a national and international issue.
“That's what we need to fight for: freedom, justice and equality,” Johnson said. “And that will get us to better policing, better police community relations.”
Social worker training can also contribute to decreasing police brutality, Barren said. Social workers should not be responding to violent situations involving people who are mentally ill, but they should be able to help in non-violent situations.
Mental health professionals should be responding to calls because of their skills and expertise in de-escalating high tension situations, Simpson said.
“The idea that social workers and health care professionals who have far more training in issues of mental health aren't going to have better skills at de-escalating an intense situation than police officers is just not true,” he said.
WSUPD responds to many non-violent situations that do not require armed force, Holt said. He is working with the WSU School of Social Work to bring back a program from four years ago that allowed police to work alongside social workers.
“We could get a lot of training, but whatever training we get is not going to take the place of that really skilled social worker or a psychologist who's trained for this,” Holt said. “We just got to figure out a way how they can respond and they feel safe doing that.”
Academics can work with police officers when it comes to training and building community relations, but often the best experts in this area aren’t professors but activists, Johnson said.
“Protesters often have the most information,” he said. “They're doing this full time, they're communicating with the communities that are served by the police department.”
As part of the community, the African American Studies Department is involved with the SJAC that WSU President M. Roy Wilson created to examine policies at the university and how they could be changed to create more inclusion, Johnson said. The committee will present findings in November but changes can be made now.
The SJAC on Policing is reviewing practices within WSUPD, Holt said.
“They're already covered with things that will make it (WSUPD) more community oriented than I have it right now,” he said.
The SJAC plans to have more initiatives and conversations, Wheeler said, but change begins with individuals and being unapologetic about what you stand for.
“It’s uncomfortable to live under the threat of death and it’s uncomfortable to be misunderstood and criticized,” Wheeler said. “This life is uncomfortable, this country is uncomfortable living in Black skin, so it’s okay to sit in a two-hour uncomfortable conversation.”
Jack Filbrandt is the editor-in-chief at The South End. He can be reached at editorinchiefTSE@gmail.com.