One of the most controversial questions during a Community Policing Awareness forum Monday evening in Hinesville concerned racial profiling. Specifically, does it exist in Liberty County?
Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes said during the meeting, hosted by the Liberty County Branch of the NAACP at the Charles M. Shuman Recreation Center, that he wasn’t aware of any profiling.
Three people have told Sikes they were stopped only because they were black. Two of the three were stopped at night on Interstate 95. One, Sikes said, was driving 103 mph, the other 97 mph.
But Walthourville Police Chief Tracy McFadden respectfully disagreed.
“I beg to differ,” he said. “Yes, we do have racial profiling in Liberty County. … They said, ‘Speak the truth tonight,’ and I speak the truth. … I’ve had issues myself with racism in Liberty County… Now, we are breaking barriers, don’t get me wrong; but I can’t say we don’t have racism because I’ve experienced it firsthand.”
He said the meeting called for open, honest discussion. Community and law-enforcement leaders should now work together to break down remaining barriers.
Senior representatives of five law-enforcement agencies joined local high-school students as panelists for the forum.
Law-enforcement representatives were Sikes, Hinesville Police Chief George Stagmeier, Midway Police Chief Kelli Lyn Morningstar, McFadden and Lt. Thornell King of Georgia State Patrol, Post 11.
“This event is designed to build a relationship in the community with our law-enforcement agencies,” said Graylan Quarterman, the president of the local NAACP. “We decided this event would be important to our community by being proactive. We’ve seen where some incidences have happened around the country (that have had) negative connotations to our community, like what happened in Ferguson (Missouri) and what happened with the Trayvon Martin issue.”
He hopes the policing-awareness forum will prevent such incidences from happening in this community by building a relationship with law enforcement agencies.
“We want our citizens to understand that policing in the community is not just a responsibility of the folks wearing the badge and the folks who wear the uniform,” he said. “It is a community responsibility. … Some of the questions that will be asked this afternoon will encourage us to see it as a partnership with law enforcement.”
Quarterman said it is the responsibility of the community to raise a child, that the responsibility cannot be placed solely on the home or the police officer. Responsibility also belongs to civic and religious groups, he said.
Morningstar was asked what evidence people are allowed to see at the scene when they are stopped for speeding. She responded that, for safety reasons, officers are not required to show the motorist the radar, but they are required by law to offer an accuracy check.
King added that state troopers are not required to show people anything at all during a traffic stop.
Stagmeier was asked about programs that protect the most vulnerable, such as juveniles, elderly, minorities, the disabled and the homeless.
“We meeting regularly with the Board of Education and other law-enforcement agencies to address truancy,” Stagmeier said. “We have a curfew the city put in place several years back — how long (juveniles) can stay out on a week day or weekend. …
“In the last few years, new laws have been passed that give us … more tools to work with the elderly,” he continued. “We (are starting) a program … where we have a list of (elderly) individuals that we can check on.”
McFadden was asked what he was doing to change an attitude of distrust in law enforcement among residents to one of trust. He said his department cares about the concerns and needs of Walthourville residents. They are welcome to come in to see how his department works, but transparency is limited to revealing information only about closed cases. An active investigation or pending trial cannot be discussed, he said.
He emphasized that he doesn’t want residents to think police are trying to hide anything and invited them to participate in his department’s ride-along program to see how his officers do their job.
Another person asked whether it was OK for a person to video a traffic stop. Both Sikes and King said it was legal and OK so long as the videographer did not interfere with the officer doing his or her job. They both said their officers now wear body cameras, so the traffic stop is already being recorded.