Previously: Open Letter to Houston’s Chief of Police
In the midst of public outcries against the racism and violence of the criminal justice system in the United States, police departments are trying to repair their images with the same lack of grace as Bill Cosby’s Far From Finished comedy tour.
“It’s not the race or ethnicity, it’s the behavior,” Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said when asked why people of color had their vehicles searched at disproportionately high rates.
While speech like this is not uncommon in police departments, the McClelland’s choice of venue was questionable, as his voice filled the auditorium of Texas Southern University, a historically black college located at the center of a historically black community currently being ravaged by gentrification.
The event was billed as a town hall meeting, implying that police would be listening to the concerns of the community. Town meetings became commonplace in 17th century New England as an outlet for communities to make democratic decisions on legislation and policy.
Communities were able to be engaged and have their voices heard, which made the Houston Police Department’s latest stunt so disingenuous. District Attorney Devon Anderson, Chief Charles McClelland, and members of HPD senior staff even sat in a panel in an effort to appear accessible.
Inside the auditorium, police officers outnumbered community members, lining the aisles and standing in the back of the theatre once the first five rows of reserved police seating were filled. Outside, more police stood on guard against the anti-racism protest at the University’s entrance in case fire hoses were needed.
Early in the program, protesters entered the auditorium, chanting with raised arms. University President John Rudley shushed them and had them removed them like Canadian hecklers.
In order to more concretely demonstrate to the audience how intolerant the police are when confronted with nonviolent protest, Rudley dismissively said, “Thank you ladies, we’ve heard you, goodbye.”
The purpose of the town hall was not to listen to the community, but instead to say sorry not sorry for racism.
“Our officers have even dated interracially,” Chief McClelland said of Houston Police at one point, weakly trying to defend diversity in the department.
“This is a system. It doesn’t matter if it’s a black police officer or a white police officer, it is a system of policing that is killing us!” yelled one participant, frustrated at how the chief evaded questions of policy. “What we want is for you guys to stop shooting us, stop judging us, stop hassling us! When black youth, brown youth, queer people are standing together trying to fight against a system of brutality, police officers are still killing us!”
“Thank you for your comment,” McClelland responded flatly, clearly hoping to move on to an easier question.
Far from listening, the department merely wanted to create the illusion of an open door policy while letting excess public anger pour itself into a microphone pointed at intentionally deaf ears.
After patiently standing in line for over an hour, a member of the New Black Panther Party spoke up, saying, “I came to look you in your face and look into your heart, to ask you a serious question, chief. Is this some kind of joke? You come into this community and tell people it’s as simple as filing a complaint. We’ve been filing complaints for over four hundred years!”
As the applause died down, he continued, “We were filing complaints while we were floating over here on the slave ship Jesus while they were having church on the top deck!”
Chief McClelland’s face sunk as he looked away from the speaker.
“You want to sit up here and talk about crime? Go home and play Monopoly with your children. Start off with no money at all and see what you end up with.” The Chief shifted his posture uncomfortably, once again looking away. “People out here are trying to survive right now. You won’t even look at me, Chief!”
“You’re gonna come in here today and act like Captain America and tell us everything is ok?”
The chief responded by explaining that the department is not perfect and that cases like the tragic death of Jordan Baker are normally handled by the FBI.
McClelland then proudly explained that, “Not one single time since I have been police chief have the FBI [or] Attorney General Eric Holder come back and issued an indictment in any of those cases. Not one single time.”
When Chief McClelland parades statistics like these around, it is worth remembering that the FBI also cleared Houston Police of wrongdoing after an officer executed a wheelchair-bound double amputee.
Through all of these boasts, the community will not be holding its breath in expectation of change under current leadership as the administration is far from finished.
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