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'Truth Has No Color'

Georgia Southern hosts discussion on race relations

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Posted: August 27, 2014 9:09 p.m.
Updated: August 27, 2014 9:05 p.m.
'Truth Has No Color'

GSU sociology lecturer Nathan Palmer, center, moderates a forum Tuesday on race relations in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Mo. The panel featured local educators, community leaders and law enforcement officials.


    Local law enforcement and community leaders fielded questions Tuesday night as a crowd of Georgia Southern University students and other citizens discussed race relations and interaction between police and about 150 community members during the “Truth Has No Color” event in the university’s College of Education building.
    The protests and violence in Ferguson, Missouri, following the recent shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown spawned the forum, organized by Sheila Francois, political action chairwoman for the Georgia NAACP’s Youth and College Division.
    Brown, who was black and unarmed, died after being shot six times by a white police officer, according to reports. Some claim the incident was race-related.
    The panelists were Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jared Akins, Georgia Southern Dean of Students Patrice Buckner Jackson, Georgia NAACP President Dr. Francys Johnson, Statesboro-Bulloch County Crime Suppression Team Capt. Jason Kearney, Ogeechee Judicial Circuit District Attorney Richard Mallard, community leader Jonathan McCollar, Georgia Southern Police Chief Mike Russell and Statesboro Public Safety Director Wendell Turner.
    Students shared poetry and other remarks before panelists began answering questions. The event was moderated by GSU sociology lecturer Nathan Palmer.
    “It is important we have real change and be proactive, not reactive,” Francois said.
    Chris Ware, political action chairman of the Zeta Delta Delta Chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, then shared a timeline outlining details of Brown’s death.
    Most of the discussion centered on how a similar event would be handled if it occurred in Statesboro.
    Palmer encouraged interaction, stating that some might be afraid to discuss the topic honestly because “people are afraid they will be identified as part of the problem.”
    “What can we learn from the killing of Michael Brown?” Palmer asked.
     “I would hope (to find) the investigation is thorough and unbiased,” Turner said.
    Russell said people “have to have faith in our system. It is not perfect. You have to be involved, have faith, hope and trust.”
    Akins told the crowd that conclusions should not be made until all facts are known.
    “You’ve got multiple levels of scrutiny,” he said. Until facts are reviewed, “you really have a hard time drawing conclusions that are worth anything.”
    Brown’s death was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” McCollar said, explaining that the shooting followed other recent events in the nation in which unarmed suspects were killed by police. “It is only the personification of an issue this country has failed to address.”
    Elected officials, who create laws, as opposed to officers, who enforce the law, should be on the panel as well, he said.
    Palmer asked whether panelists “see parallels between Ferguson and Statesboro.”
    Mallard said discussion of the possibility of a similar incident in the area was “premature.”
    “It’s hard to discuss some of this without knowing really what the facts are,” he added. “We can handle the truth, but we have to know what the truth is.”
    An unidentified man in the audience stated that poverty is the root of problems in Statesboro, and a woman in the audience blamed media coverage for biased opinions regarding the Ferguson incident.
    Chris Booker, who spoke from the audience and said he taught criminal justice, asked panelists, “What values do you instill in your officers about the acceptable level of risk?”
    Turner responded first.
    “It goes back to training and state law,” he said.  Law enforcement officers go by “the same laws to protect yourself as civilians. You can use force to protect yourself.”
    Police have to be held accountable to policies, he said.
    “That’s something we train on every year,” Akins said. “There really is no one-size-fits-all approach to use of force.”
    Russell said GSU police “go over and above what the state requires” regarding training.
    “At what point does an officer decide to shoot?” Palmer asked.
    “They are trained to stop the threat,” Turner said in response. “There are a million variables,” and officers are trained to aim at the center of the body when firing in defense.
    Turner said it rarely only takes one shot to stop an attacker.
    “It’s not like on TV,” he said.
    Johnson spoke next.
    “The NAACP is deeply concerned about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson,” he said.
    There were numerous civil rights and other complaints lodged against the city and its police department prior to the incident, he said.
    “What happened in Ferguson can happen anywhere,” Johnson said. “This does not have to be black and white. It should be red, white and blue.”
    Akins said there are many factors that determine how an officer handles an attack by an unarmed person.
    “Are they intoxicated or sober? Compliant or combative?” he said.
    Many people do not see things from an officer’s perspective, Akins said, adding that he wished people could ride along with deputies on night shift so they could see firsthand the types of situations they encounter.
    “Most cops involved in officer-related shootings are scared to death,” Akins said. “Despite training, they are human, like everybody else.”
    Incidents involving armed or unarmed persons are hard to pin down because of the many variables.
    “Things can go crazy in a matter of seconds,” he said.
    When a person in the audience asked how police agencies can improve public trust, Russell responded: “We try to do whatever we can to build trust. I do anything and everything I can to build that trust.”
    His department makes extra efforts to be of assistance to students, he said.
    Before the event ended, Turner encouraged people in the audience to consider a career in law enforcement and invited them to apply with the Statesboro Police Department, which is hiring, he said.
    Many students remained after the event to discuss related issues with panelists.
   
    Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.

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