The time for conversation on issues of race, equality and policing is now.
That was the consensus among the panelists at Wednesday’s Suncoast Tiger Bay Club virtual luncheon. The discussion, mediated by former WTSP-10 Tampa Bay reporter Garin Flowers, included:
- Bob Gualtieri, Pinellas County Sheriff
- Jabaar Edmond, Community Activist, Writer, VP Child’s Park NA
- Belinthia A. Berry, Director, Corporate College at SPC and president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Tampa Bay Chapter
- Dr. Dawn K. Cecil, Professor of Criminology at USF’s St. Petersburg campus
The candid conversation touched on a number of issues that have come to light in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, including police brutality, the portrayal of the Black community on reality TV, and what it really means to defund the police.
Gualtieri said this moment in time calls for us to “come to terms with some very hard things,” such as the issue of complicit bias, and that society as a whole needs to do a better job of not acting on preconceived notions.
That comes from respect on both sides, Edmond said.
“That’s the basis of a civil society, respect for ideas,” he said. “I don’t think we have to be uniform – we can still have unity without uniformity.”
There needs to be an understanding of the systematic racism that exists, not just in terms of law enforcement but also in schools, the court system and in the workplace, Berry said. And in order for things to change, “we need to make sure we have action, not just conversation.”
The discussion touched on 8 Can’t Wait, a call for reform in policing that would ban things like chokeholds and would require officers to give a warning before firing shots. Gualtieri said the PCSO has had those policies in place for a long time and has made some tweaks to them since then, although he acknowledges there’s always room for improvement. He said that the reason the Minneapolis Police Department is having so many issues is because of problems with its culture and training procedures.
“That’s the only reason something like that happens,” he said. “People need to know they’ll be held accountable.”
Panelists spent a considerable amount of time discussing funding and the idea behind what it means to defund the police.
Cecil said that the concept is not new to the field of criminology, adding the term “defund the police” is relatively new to the vernacular.
“We’ve been talking about it for years,” she said. “It’s about reevaluating the criminal justice system as a whole, talking about what it’s doing now and how we can shift.”
Edmond said that it’s time to look through the budget and consider reallocating some of the funding that goes to the police and moving it to other social programs to make them more robust. Gualtieri pointed out that the PCSO is responsible for operating Pinellas Safe Harbor, an emergency homeless shelter and jail diversion program designed to be a safe haven for people who are homeless and require services to get back on their feet. He said he’s tried to find other organizations to step up and help administer the program, but hasn’t received any takers.
“Everyone needs to step up,” he said. “We really are doing a lot.”
The reality, Edmond said, is that even people he knows who disagree with Gualtieri are essentially in alignment with what he’s saying, even if they’re saying it in a different way. He’s hopeful there can be more meetings with local leaders who can move the conversation forward and begin making changes in the community.
“There’s common ground we can start on,” Edmond said. “If we commit to the time and effort, we can be an example to the rest of the nation.”