'Tipping Point' town hall tackles race relations in Howard County

On racism: "Howard County is not immune."

When 17-year-old De-Ara Graves moved from a public school in Columbia to a private Catholic school in Baltimore, racism openly reared its head as the African American teen walked the school's halls.

But in Howard County, Graves, who is secretary of the county's NAACP youth council, said the plight of racism is far worse. Inherent biases simmer under the surface, emerging so briefly in the public eye that the community can easily disregard specific incidents as random anomalies, she said.

"Howard County is not immune," Graves said, recalling a brief, chilling moment when a woman folded her hands and pretended to shoot protesters at a Black Lives Matter protest in July. "Racism may be ugly, but we can't say it's not there. We can't shake our head and ignore it because it's right there. Not everyone can see that."

On Monday night, the African American Community Roundtable of Howard County, a group of county organizations and churches that aim to improve the lives of African Americans, held a community town hall called "Tipping Point" to tackle public awareness about race relations and policing in the county.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore City and Howard County, said community-police relations demanded an open and honest conversation — no matter how hard or uncomfortable it may be.

"I resent the idea that because I want respect, accountability and good policing that that means I'm in some way against the police," Cummings said.

Organizers said recent violent encounters between African Americans and the police, including the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray, required solutions to improve relations between the police and African Americans and to tackle racism deeply rooted and often undetected in the community.

Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner, whose department has been working with the roundtable on community-police relations for the last two years, said the breakdown of trust between police and residents was partly because increasing emphasis on police training caused many police departments to scale back on outreach programs.

When Gardner became a police officer in 1984, trainings were "very simple" and have become "excessive in recent years" as police departments attempt to tackle complex situations like terrorism, active-shooter situations and mental illness, he said.

"Today, any public venue can be a target. … I look for the exit [in theaters] and I'm a police officer," Gardner said. "Things have changed."

The first step to improve relations is bridging the gap between police cruisers and African Americans by building long-lasting relationships with the community to stem mistrust and fear, panelists said.

Fire Department Chief John Butler said this approach required "a two-way street" with police officers and residents directly involved.

Unconscious biases are hidden in many institutions and many people make generalizations about other races and religions based on the actions of a handful of incidents, panelists said.

Allen Powell, a pastor at Holy Trinity Worship Center in Laurel, said it was critical to recognize community-police interaction is "an American issue" and not "a black issue."

"To the 99 percent of police officers, I love them. Here's my struggle. It takes one to kill. It takes one to shoot us down," said Powell. "All I'm asking for is equal protection under the law."

Despite its affluence, Howard County is in "a bubble," said Nathaniel Alston Jr., a former Maryland state trooper. Many people do not realize racism exists and that some African Americans train their children on how to interact with the police when they sit around dining tables for dinner, he said.

"I always ask black fathers, 'Have you had the talk?' Every black male understands 'the talk,'" Alston said.

Discrimination is underreported in Howard County, said Mary Campbell, a compliance officer with the county's Office of Human Rights. Campbell, a white American who grew up seeing racism in Sparrows Point in Baltimore County, said talking about racism is extremely challenging because it is difficult to truly understand others' perspectives.

"Sometimes, I just get very, very tired. I have white brothers and family and nephews and they don't get it," Campbell said.

Gardner said residents often carry negative perceptions of the police in Howard County based on their interactions with police in other counties.

"It's important that every police officer, from me on down to those interacting with the community, each and every day have the same interactions and develop understanding," he said.

The sensitive nature of the topic, which panelists said can often be dismissed as a purely emotional conversation, was apparent Monday night. Organizers acknowledged the town hall was the only the beginning of future steps to tackle racism and police relations.

Still, community frustrations ran high, leaving a question by the moderator, Patrice Sanders, a Fox45 morning news anchor, on how to implement meaningful actions based on the conversation largely unanswered.

The town hall left Alexis Stratton-Bratcher, who graduated from Hammond High School this year, yearning for more.

The 18-year-old student, who plans to attend Ohio State University, said racism thrives at Hammond High School, where students she studied with grew up with parents who cautioned their children from playing in "the low-income neighborhoods with the black kids."

"There is a separation. And it grows and continues throughout schooling," Stratton-Bratcher said. "I'm not satisfied. What we just had was a venting session. If that's what people want, that's ok. But we didn't have the conversation we need right now. We're tired of seeing protests happen. We're tired of having another conversation."

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