Avoyelles police chiefs comment on Baltimore riots

"3 R's" to avoid unrest

 

By RAYMOND L. DAYE
As the nation once again watches an American city in the throes of racially-charged riots, there are as many questions about the actions and motives of the protesters as there are about the actions and motives of police officers that resulted in the cause of the riots.
 
In Avoyelles Parish, law enforcement officials’ recipe for avoiding similar unrest here can be summed up in “3 R’s” -- respond quickly to the need for service; respect the suspect and the victim; and create a relationship of trust between the police officers and the communities they serve.
 
Police chiefs in three Avoyelles Parish municipalities were asked for their insights and reactions to the Baltimore riots, which were ignited after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died  April 19 from injuries he allegedly sustained while in police custody.
 
Gray was arrested April 12, sustained injuries to his spine and larynx, slipped into a coma and died despite multiple surgical attempts to save his life. There has been no official explanation as to how Gray was injured or the circumstances surrounding the incident. Six Baltimore police officers have been arrested during an investigation into the Gray death. Peaceful protests eventually evolved into riots. As of last week, 20 police officers had been injured and over 250 people had been arrested in the riots.
 
All three men interviewed on this subject said the most important thing is that the police department does the job it is charged to do -- answer calls for assistance from the public quickly, courteously, courageously and completely.
 
Mansura - build relationships
Mansura Police Chief John Johnson said the protesters have gone too far in Baltimore.
 
“The rioting is an excessive response,” Johnson said. “We have the law, we have judges and attorneys. That’s what they are there for. Taking matters into your own hands when you have a grievance is not right.”
 
Johnson said it is hard to imagine a Baltimore-type situation -- even on a much smaller scale -- in Mansura.
 
“The police department has to have a good relationship with the community,” Johnson said. “The police officer has to know the people and be able to talk to them. The people in the community need to be able to trust and respect the police officer.”
 
Johnson said that kind of relationship, built on mutual respect, would prevent the kind of atmosphere that existed in Baltimore even before the Freddie Gray case.
 
“Just because you have one or two bad apples in a bucket doesn’t mean the whole bucket is bad,” Johnson said. “There are good people and there are bad people protesting in Baltimore. There are good cops and bad cops. It is wrong to judge either group by the wrong actions of a few.”
 
Johnson said the use of body-worn cameras “will slow down the bad cops” while also providing protection from physical violence and wrongful accusations against the police officers.
 
Simmesport - respect the  public
Simmesport Police Chief Brandon Spillman said all necessary steps are being taken to ensure that the kind of incident allegedly committed by police in Baltimore does not happen here.
 
“All officers upon gaining employment with our agency, are issued a Department Policy and Procedure manual which allows the officer to become aware of what is expected of him or her and how to handle certain types of situations that he or she may encounter during his tour of duty." Spillman said.
 
While “humanity” in a police officer is considered to be a positive attribute, that same “humanity” also leaves room for mistakes.
 
“A police officer has a very difficult job,” Spillman said. “We  are expected to wear many hats when dealing with several different type of situations, which does take a toll on the officer. The simple fact is that we are human. We do feel, we do hurt, and -- despite popular belief -- we do care. 
 
"Police officers are held to a higher standard than a normal citizen may be held,” he continued. “Due to this, they are expected to treat anyone they encounter with a level of dignity and respect, regardless of the amount of or lack of respect being given back. This is something that is constantly preached to the officers.”
 
Police officers are also told that the uniform and badge might earn them some respect initially, but “the person wearing that badge and uniform has to earn the public’s respect,” he said. “We all know that there are 'bad' cops in this nation who may abuse their power, but to judge all law enforcement based off of the actions of a very small percentage is completely unjust, regardless of race.”
 
Spillman said his top two priorities as police chief are insisting on professionalism among the police officers and maintaining the public’s trust.
 
“I have faith that in the event of a serious incident occurring in Simmesport involving the police force, that the people of Simmesport would trust that the appropriate actions regarding investigation and/or prosecution would take place, and allow such actions to take place without resorting to violence,” Spillman said.
 
Cottonport -‘preventive maintenance’
Cottonport practices “preventive maintenance” to avoid situations that led to the Baltimore civil unrest.
 
“If your car is having a little problem, you fix it before it becomes a big problem,” Cottonport Police Chief Ernest Anderson said. “Even better, it’s like preventive maintenance. You take care of the car before there is a problem. That’s what we do  here.”
 
Anderson said ensuring the public has good officers entrusted to protect the town begins with the hiring process. He said every police officer has to undergo a psychological test before being hired. Anderson conducts a monthly meeting with officers to emphasize what is expected of them and how they are to address certain situations. It is also a time when police officers can talk to the chief about what is going on in the community and ask any questions they may have.
 
“One thing I stress is that they make sure to turn their body camera on at every traffic stop, disturbance and whenever they contact the public.”
 
Anderson said he reviews the videos “to see how they are talking to the public” to see if there is any possible problem before an incident occurs. He said there have been no “bad incidents” since police began wearing body cameras earlier this year. 
 
Avoyelles may not be able to get it copyrighted, but “Respond, Respect and Relationship” sounds like a good trademark for any police department.

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