Police-minorities relationship heats up panel discussion

A bias exists against police officers by the public, the heads of the local police departments acknowledged this afternoon during an unusually frank panel discussion on minorities and their relationship with law enforcement.

“I think it would be foolish to think there isn’t a bias” by some in the community, Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie said.

“We would definitely have our heads buried in the sand if we didn’t think that perception of bias is out there,” North Las Vegas police Assistant Chief Joseph Chronister said.

What the departments are doing to counter that perception, and why it exists in the first place, was the theme of the wide-ranging discussion at Las Vegas City Hall, organized by the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The arrest last month of prominent Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is black, by a white Massachusetts police officer brought to light that racial tensions between police and minorities still exist. Can there be a good relationship between police and minorities?

“We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet,” said David Wallace Jr., one of the discussion’s moderators.

Panelists, which included a lieutenant from the Clark County School District, members of the Clark County district attorney’s and coroner’s offices and the American Civil Liberties Union, were asked why minorities are incarcerated at much higher rates than whites, a trend that appears nationally.

“I think we have to acknowledge that there is rampant racism in the (criminal justice) system,” ACLU general counsel Allen Lichtenstein said.

Racism exists not because people are intentionally trying to oppress minorities, he said. Rather he pointed to unfair laws such as federal cocaine statutes. Penalties for crack cocaine, primarily used by minorities and the poor, are 10 times as harsh as those for powder cocaine, primarily used by whites and the more wealthy, he said.

The panelists did not have answers for the differences in incarceration rates. Family Court judge William Voy, who was in the audience before being called up to join the panel, said his court has worked to keep its sentencing of juveniles fair.

Roughly 50 members of the public, matched nearly by the number of top brass of the Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson police departments, were in attendance and able to submit questions to the moderators.

One person asked why officers in patrol cars follow someone for a mile or two before pulling them over, rather than pulling them over immediately, and what police can do about alleviating the anxiety of seeing a patrol car in the rearview mirror.

Gillespie said that before cars came equipped with computers, traffic stops used to be faster. Now, however, officers run plates in their computers before they pull someone over, he said.

Henderson police Chief Jutta Chambers said the feeling of anxiety when being followed by police is natural. She admitted that she feels it when she’s followed by police also.

Much of the discussion focused on young people and their relationship with law enforcement. Gillespie said there’s only so much the police can do about it.

“We’ve got a younger, more violent portion of society than we’ve ever seen before,” Gillespie said. Historically, society has not done a good job reaching out to youth and giving them more opportunities, he said.

“We in law enforcement know we’re not going to arrest our way out of this,” he said.

The NAACP hopes to continue the discussions. A workshop between law enforcement and the community has been scheduled for November.

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440.

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