Gainesville police and racism

A lot of police departments behave deplorably, especially where race is concerned. So I thought I would share a positive story.

I live in Gainesville, Florida. The police chief is Tony Jones, who has spent his entire career in GPD. He is… awesome. In the original meaning of the word.  He’s been a leader in the Community Policing movement, and has won a ton of awards for working to move policing into this century. He believes officers should know the citizens on their beats, and that police should be there to help improve the community as well as catch criminals. He’s been working for years to keep young black men out of the prison pipeline with a social program called the Reichert House that has proven results.  Even one of our state attorneys is a graduate of the program.

Chief Jones is African-American. It’s relevant, because there is an older generation of (white) Gainesville cops, hired under previous chiefs, who dislike the idea of “progressive policing” and… well… You know the problem some people have with President Obama while claiming to not be racists? Yeah. That.

Earlier this week an anonymous letter got circulated on Facebook, written by one of those old guard officers who isn’t happy with the way Jones is doing things.  He is angry because the Chief won’t allow the police to use racial profiling. He believes Jones cares more about the people he serves than his officers. The screed has six pages, saying that morale is low among the ranks and… I’m not going to link to it, but if you’re curious you can go to Facebook and search for Jones’ name.

I told you this is a positive story, right? I’m getting there.

Word spread that a group of those old guard officers would be at Thursday’s city commission meeting to argue for the Chief’s removal. The public showed up in force to show their support for Jones. Even with a three-minute limit for each citizen speaker, it took almost three hours for everyone to speak who wished to. And there were many more there for visible support, so much so that the overflow of people had to be put in conference rooms where they could watch the proceedings via video feed.  And it was a mixed-race crowd.  Not just black and white, but others too.  Most of the attendees were black, but there were tons of people.  There were police offers there, too, off-duty ones who’d come to show their support.

Nobody stood up to say anything bad against Jones, probably because one of the commissioners said flat-out that the commission supported the Chief completely.  I suspect the negative people were worried about being a tiny percentage of the audience, too.  Cowards.  But then the letter was anonymous, so we already knew that about them.

A lot of people talked about racism, public and elected officials both.  There is a good deal of it in this town, but the fact that so many people were willing to openly discuss it for two hours with our elected politicians was fucking amazing.

When the public comments section was over, it was the officials’ turn to say their closing remarks on the matter.  Every single one of them said they supported the Chief (and even if they privately didn’t, their constituents were right there telling them they’d better if they wanted to stay in office).  A few of them talked about fighting racism in the community, and steps that need be taken and are currently underway.  One black commissioner, who was admittedly very long-winded, specifically addressed the black citizens, talking about what they could do to help as well.  I had never seen an African-American politician speaking directly to black citizens, so I think that was educational for a lot of non-black attendees.  It was for me, anyway.

The mayor, Lauren Poe, wound up the proceedings.  Even before this week’s uproar hit, he had started a book club that was beginning with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.  There were also already plans in place for a community meal this fall called The Longest Table, where attendees would be seated with complete strangers so everyone could get to know other residents better.  (Nothing was said explicitly about race, but everyone knew that’s what the meal is about.)  I think I’ll go to that, because it sounds like it will be interesting at the very least.

One thing several people said, citizens and commissioners alike, is that Chief Jones is the reason we aren’t the next Ferguson.  Having people of all colors and all walks of life standing up in defense of the goddamn police chief was amazing and wonderful.  I love this city so much.

(Gainesville, by the way, for years has had anti-discrimination laws and bathroom laws to help us transgender folk.  Florida may be a red state, but not all towns are red!)

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