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Takeaways From Louisville Forum on Ferguson, Police and Race

The Louisville Forum on Wednesday focused on what can be done locally to prevent a situation in this city like what occurred last summer in Ferguson, Missouri.

In Ferguson, an 18-year-old unarmed African American man was fatally shot by a police officer in August. The man’s death sparked months of protest and outrage from people across the U.S. Louisville also had itsshare of demonstrationsfollowing a Missouri grand jury’s decision to not indict the officer responsible for the shooting.

More than 130 people attended the Wednesday forum in Louisville; panelists discussed the root causes of social unrest, racial bias and a distrust in law enforcement—all factors that attributed to the outrage seen across the country in recent months.

The panelists were:

  • Dr. Scott Williamson, Ethics Professor, Louisville Seminary
  • Dr. Cate Fosl, Director, Anne Braden Institute
  • Lt. Col. Kim Kraeszig, assistant police chief, Louisville Metro Police Department
  • Philip Bailey, Louisville Magazine columnist

Here are some takeaways from the discussion:

Ferguson is a 'loaded term'

The word has a number of meanings for a number of people, said Williamson. For some, it’s a rallying cry, for others it is an “illustration that police in urban areas are under siege.”

“We think about Ferguson in different ways, which makes it hard to have a conversation about what we should do,” Williamson said.

The conversations that follow events like the Ferguson shooting evolve from not only what people see, but what people believe, Williamson said. “What we see is filtered through an ethos, a lens, of our values and our beliefs and our assumptions,” he said.

Conversations about events surrounding racial tension often “devolves into contention,” he said.

“There is a better way,” he added.

“Instead of a conversation about race, let’s reframe that and talk about unconscious bias,” he said.

Williamson said people need to identify their unconscious bias, address it and identify ways to move forward with how to quell it.

Fosl said race and perceptions of race are the “greatest divides in U.S. history," but no simple solution exists.

She said many white people tend to live in a “state of denial” that we are living in “post-racial society," which she added is a myth.

Fosl said certain policies need to be acted on to eliminate inequalities that exist in Louisville. She praised city officials pledge to raise the minimum wage, but said more needs to be done—like ensuring fair housing throughout Jefferson County.

'Louisville has been Ferguson'

A “spate of police shootings” in more than a decade ago propelled Louisville into the national spotlight, Fosl said. And she added that those incidents could have had a much different outcome if social media existed at the time.

“Louisville has been Ferguson,” said Bailey, who is the former WFPL political editor.  “We had some of these very same clashes in this city.”

But Bailey questioned what “we learned from that situation.”

“We still really don’t know what to do,” he added.

Kristyon Guinn, a senior at the Shawnee Academy who attended the forum, said for starters police can start to “treat everybody the same.”

Guinn is an African American and said he has lived in west Louisville his entire life.  He said he has been unjustly hassled by police on numerous occasions.

“I’ve been just walking down the street and been stopped,” he said. “They said it was something about how I was walking, how I looked.”

Bailey said some local police officers, specifically African American police officers, feel “ostracized” by civil rights groups “that don’t care about their feelings as police officers” and police unions “that are overwhelmingly white and don’t speak to issues of diversity and race.”

“Very rarely are they engaged in the community conversation,” he said.

Preventing situations like Ferguson depend on community support

Kraeszig, of Louisville Metro Police, said she “wants to know that the events that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, could not be replicated” in Louisville.

And she said preventing it depends on open dialogue between community and law enforcement. That relationship is “crucial to laying a foundation of trust prior to a critical incident occurring," she said.

She said creating a safe community is “not merely a police issue.”

“It’s a community issue,” she said.  “It’s so important that police officers and citizens have a shared responsibility.”

She said the police department is working to create a police force that mirrors the community.  Currently, about 85 percent of LMPD officers are white. About 71 percent of Jefferson County residents are white, according to 2010 Census data.

But recruiting officers, now more than ever, is difficult, she said.

“There is the possibility of being sued, injured or killed in the line of duty and that is sometimes a difficult sell,” she said.

Guinn said being a police officer isn’t something that appeals to him.

“Just because how people look at them now,” he said.

He said he believes the difficulty that exists in getting young African American residents to join the police force is a result of too many having bad experiences with police in the past.

“Growing up, they’ve probably had bad run-ins or if they didn’t their family did or people they know did," he said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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