After 50 minutes expressing hopes and concerns for improved parks and recreational programs within Statesboro, a recent community forum at Luetta Moore Park turned to community policing.
Eight months ago, on the morning of June 22, James “P.J.” Mikell Jr., 16, was found dead of gunshot wounds on the grounds of the park. The murder remains unsolved.
Concerned Clergy of Bulloch County hosted the Feb. 15 forum inside the community center, with two Bulloch County commissioners, Anthony Simmons and Ray Mosley, Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar, and a City Council member, Paulette Chavers, joining the panel. More than 50 people attended, including the panelists.
After residents cited concerns about crime on specific streets, Chief Mike Broadhead of the Statesboro Police Department said the police force cannot be “an occupying army,” and needs help from neighborhood residents. Other current officers and a retired SPD chief also took part in the discussion.
Parks, community policing and responsiveness of elected officials were all topics the moderator, the Rev. James W. Byrd Sr., announced in advance. It was Pastor Donald Chavers Jr., the councilwoman’s brother, who eventually changed the subject from parks.
“Now, my thing is, the policing in the Johnson Street area – Johnson Street, Peachtree , the whole (area) – I’ve got a congregation that they don’t feel safe because folks are in the street smoking weed,” Pastor Chavers said. “I know you can’t do everything, but I need something. I need to at least see the cars …”
“We desperately need something done … but what can we do to help you?” he asked.
Laughter erupted when the mayor said he was “going to take that question and pass it to the chief” and Broadhead remarked that “there’s a seat in every meeting that’s a little warmer than all the others.”
Then he stood and faced the group.
“It’s a problem,” Broadhead said. “We have officers on every shift assigned to that neighborhood. We have an impact team of officers who do proactive work, who go specifically to that neighborhood. We’re on Pine Street every day, we’re on Peachtree every day, but we can’t be the occupying army that comes in and takes over the city, right? …
“There are good people living there and I don’t want to come and be the oppressive force,” he continued, “ because that’s not the kind of policeman I am, and so what we need is to have better relationships with the people who live in those neighborhoods so that when we need help people will talk to us.”
Gunfight on Pine
Three weeks earlier, he noted, “a gunfight” occurred on Pine Street. More than 100 shots were fired, many apparently into the air.
“We collected a lot of brass off the street,” Broadhead said.
But – these are details he did not mention during the forum but noted in a later interview – bullets struck a house and a car, and one man needed medical attention for a bullet fragment in his jaw.
Police officers on North Main Street heard the gunfight, but on Pine Street, people said they didn’t hear anything, Broadhead told the forum participants.
He noted that many children live on Pine Street.
“It’s just a blessing from God that we didn’t have children killed in the street that day,” Broadhead said. “And nobody heard a thing? I don’t think that’s right. …”
“I get it, we’ve got trust issues,” he said. “But we work on trust issues by building relationships one-on-one. So I would ask if you see my officers driving those streets, wave back.”
Police work in Statesboro is not like what appears, from news reports, to occur in some major cities, he said. In 2019, Broadhead noted, of about 1,900 arrests in Statesboro, about 15 resulted in use-of-force reviews.
“All of those other folks are submitting to arrest peacefully, so that’s not the streets of Baltimore, that’s not Los Angeles,” he said. “We’re not having fights with people in the street every night, because people are complying. That tells me that they believe that there’s some legitimacy to their police department.”
On citizen commented that police cars with tinted windows “that look like they’re in stealth mode … build a barrier to relationships.”
Broadhead agreed, and reported that the SPD, as it replaces older cars, is transitioning away from those with the darkest tinting. Four previous “ghost cars,” with no lights on top and side graphics that could only be seen in bright light, have already been “upgraded … to make them fully marked patrol cars,” he said.
At one point during the discussion, retired SPD Chief J.R. Holloway stood up from the audience.
“I’ve been the police officer and I’ve been you, and I am you, so I’ve seen both sides,” he told the group.
Holloway, who retired in 2011 with the title of SPD “commander,” was retroactively recognized as chief of police by Statesboro City Council in 2016, having been the first African American officer to head the department.
People engaged in drug deals or other criminal activity in the street know how to “look like God’s children standing there” when a patrol car approaches, he said. So, police may not notice what neighborhood residents know is happening.
“They don’t see what you see, that’s why they’re riding past a problem that you think is a problem,” Holloway said. “That’s why you’ve got to get to get out and take back your neighborhood. You hear these people talk about ‘taking back your neighborhood’? … That’s how. You walk out there and say, ‘Officer, this person is doing this in my neighborhood and I don’t like it,’ and that’s what’s got to happen.”
Besides Broadhead, six or seven other current officers, most in uniform, attended the forum. Two of the officers, Sgt. Rosalyn Byrd and Sgt. Terrell Lewis, had worked with the Concerned Clergy to plan the event, and the rest came on their own initiative, Broadhead said.
McCollar said that, being an African American man, he understands that “there is a historical problem with African Americans and law enforcement,” since law enforcement officers were used to capture escaped slaves and later deployed as the front line against civil rights protestors.
However, laws and policies that are morally wrong begin with the people who make the laws, McCollar said. This, he said, shows why “your vote matters.”
“But when we break it back down to our neighborhoods, if my neighbor is selling dope out of his house, I’m getting on the phone, I’m calling Chief, and I’m saying, ‘This bozo next to me is selling dope around my children,’” McCollar said.
He said he wanted to leave everybody “a little mad”.
“And the reason I’m saying that is because the dope boy in the black community has been getting a pass for too long,” McCollar said. “He got to go, just point blank, end of subject. And don’t let then run that, ‘I’m doing what I have to do.’ I grew up poor and not one day did I think about selling poison to my neighbors.”
He said he used “dope boys” as an example but there are also people breaking into cars and houses and robbing people.
“We have to send a resounding message that you cannot do this in our neighborhood,” McCollar said. “These people right here, they are coming into our community and making it unsafe for us. We’ve got a young man that was killed at this park, right here. Somebody in this city knows who killed that baby.
“Somebody knows who did that and they will rather let the murderer get away than get justice for P.J.,” he said.