Residents called in to a City and Borough of Juneau Assembly listening session Wednesday night to talk about their experiences with racism in Juneau.
Assembly members were joined by Juneau Police Department Chief Ed Mercer and Lt. Krag Campbell, Juneau School District Superintendent Bridget Weiss and Board of Education President Brian Holst for a three-hour listening session focused on people’s experiences with both racism and the JPD.
Police departments nationwide are under immense scrutiny following the May 25 death George Floyd. Floyd, a black man, died while in police custody after an officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck. Four officers involved in Floyd’s arrest face charges, including second-degree murder.
Floyd’s death, the latest in a number of high-profile incidents, sparked protests across the country some of which have resulted in violent clashes with police.
In Juneau, a silent vigil was held in Floyd’s honor at Mayor Bill Overstreet Park on May 30 and a second much larger rally was held June 6, coinciding with demonstrations worldwide. At the second rally, demonstrators issued a list of demands for the city and JPD, including the creation of community oversight committee. Those demands have been circulating on social media and were read out at a June 8, Assembly meeting with Mercer in attendance.
Around 50 people called in to share their experiences, Mayor Beth Weldon said in a Thursday phone interview.
“It took a lot of courage for people to share their stories,” Weldon said. “People have had different experiences with the police, some of them are good, some are bad. We definitely need to look into a few things. I took lots of notes.”
While many of the callers were critical of the police or other local institutions where they had experienced racism, others voiced their support for the police while still urging reform.
“I robbed a jewelry store downtown in 2011,” said Nathan Block, who told how he had committed armed robbery and when apprehending him, JPD officers surrounded him equipped with assault rifles, a move Block said was exactly the right thing to do.
“If it wasn’t for JPD, (Lemon Creek Correctional Center) staff and guards and parole officers, I wouldn’t have changed my life let alone think that my opinion mattered at a forum like this,” Block said, calling from the University of Alaska Southeast where he said he recently completed a Master’s Degree.
“I support JPD. I support the blue. I support Black Lives Matter,” Block said, urging the demilitarization of the police and reallocation of funding toward training rather than defunding the police, as some have called for nationally.
Assembly members and other local officials didn’t answer questions during the three-hour session, only listening to public testimony. Any changes to police or city policy would take place at other city meetings, Weldon said at the beginning of the session. The issue will be taken up again at a June 22 meeting of the Committee of the Whole.
There are calls for police reform both locally and nationally which the city and police have been asked to respond to. Including the local demands issued at the June 6 rally, a national “#8cantwait” movement has gained support calling for reforms such as ending the use of chokeholds as an acceptable use of force.
JPD released its use of force policy following questions from Assembly members and its response to #8cantwait’s proposals last week, but their defense of what it calls the carotid control hold, drew criticism from the public at the listening session.
The carotid control hold was “a dense and jargony way of obscuring what is essentially a chokehold,” said David Song, who called in to testify.
“Many other police departments seem to understand that,” Song said, before listing several cities which had already banned chokeholds such as New York.
Another caller, Viva Morato, told officials to follow the demands issued at the June 6 rally.
“Black people, indigenous people and people of color have already tried the nice way,” Morato said. “Clearly people have asked. These are demands, and not requests and not suggestions because no more people should be dying. They certainly weren’t listening when Mr. Floyd was asking nicely as they kneeled on his neck, right? I’m pretty sure he was begging.”
Morato said the listening session was being held because the community had called for action.
“Why do you think these meetings are happening? Why do you think so many people are paying attention to these meetings right now?”
In an interview Thursday, Mercer said he was pleased the session was held, and saw it as an integral part of building community relations.
“It’s important for the police department to continue to have community relations,” Mercer said. “We’re working towards the same goals (as the community), understandings and education, making it better for where we live.”
Mercer said his department worked hard to build relationships in the community, including communities of color, to be able to work out issues with the police in a collaborative way.
“The police are always evolving, always trying to build up community relations,” he said. “We will continue to evolve and get better and by having dialogue and discussions.”
Mercer, who attended the silent vigil for Floyd, said he was familiar with the demands made at the rally, and was open to considering them, but that it was still very early in a much larger reform project taking place nationwide. There are already public members of the Alaska Police Standards Commission, Mercer said, but if Juneau wants to create its own civilian oversight committee, he is willing to have those discussions.
“Something positive, something’s going to come out of this,” Mercer said. Asked about calls to defund the police Mercer said he would be open to seeing a strategic reallocation of those funds.
“Maybe using (police) funds to fund more social services, so the police don’t have to worry about those issues,” he said.
Mercer was emphatic about the need for continued dialogue moving forward.
“We need to continue to have conversations and engage,” he said. “I always try to put myself in somebody else’s shoes. (To understand) why they believe this is the way it is. That’s always good when you interact with people, especially when they have concerns.”
• Contact reporter Peter Segall at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.