Antioch Church of Long Beach was jam-packed Thursday night, forcing some attendees into the overflow seating near the entrance to the church. The hundreds of people in attendance weren’t there for one of Pastor Wayne Chaney Jr.’s energetic sermons, however; they came to have their voices heard at a town hall-style meeting called by newly promoted Police Chief Robert Luna in an effort to engage the community and address growing concerns.
“We don’t want to leave here the same way we came in,” Chaney said. “We don’t want to leave divided.”
Although the night was moderated by Chaney, the focus was on the officers who sat center stage in a setup resembling a TED Talk, ready to hear the citizens’ questions regarding hiring practices, use of force and racial profiling, to name a few.
After introducing all of the department’s commanders who sat side-by-side with him, Luna addressed the crowd that spanned the spectrum from young to old, white to black and religious to agnostic.
“We’re here because, from us, the Long Beach Police Department, we are very concerned about our relationship,” Luna said of the department’s effort to increase engagement with the people it serves. “This police department didn’t just start a couple of weeks ago. I believe there’s a great foundation here because it’s a great city and there are great people living here.”
The outline of the proceedings was formatted as such; questions would be submitted on 3x5 cards provided to all attendees and would be focused on seven pre-determined categories including police accountability and transparency, biased-based police practices and officer involved shootings. However, the fact that the questions were sorted through, leaving many unaddressed, left some attendees feeling slighted.
“This isn’t an open forum, this is a lecture,” said Michael Brown, a co-founder of the group Black Lives Matter LBC.
The format and pre-screening of the submitted questions was determined by the organizers at Antioch, explained Gregory Sanders, President of the Long Beach Ministers Alliance, the organization that helped facilitate the event. In the interest of time, Sanders said duplicate questions needed to be weeded out and the topics covered were based on community feedback gathered in advance of the forum.
“The categories were selected based on interviews we did with people,” Sanders said. “We said ‘if you could ask police officers anything, what would you ask them?’ So we did that randomly for a couple of months and we took what we were hearing and we created those categories.”
Brown and several others donned black shirts that read “#Black Lives Matter #LBC” with Brown’s being adorned with buttons containing the faces of men who had recently lost their lives in officer involved shootings in Long Beach. His group, which recently marched in the interfaith vigil held in December following non-indictments in New York and Ferguson officer involved deaths, brought several mothers who had lost their sons to police confrontations to the meeting, including Pamela Fields, the mother of Donte Jordan, a 39-year old man killed by police gunfire in November 2013. Jordan was allegedly brandishing and firing a handgun while under the influence of PCP before he was shot multiple times in the back by LBPD officers. The investigation into the shooting is still ongoing.
When the topic of use of force was raised, the group broke into a chant of “let her speak”, prompting Chaney to break protocol and invite Fields onto the stage where she was handed a microphone and was able to look into the eyes of Luna and the commanders. After stating her son was ambushed on the night he died and alleging racial profiling, discrimination and corruption in the department, she asked the officers two questions.
“What are you going go do about the misconduct and the coverups within the police department?” Fields asked. “What are you going to do to gain our trust back?”
Luna offered his condolences to Fields but wouldn’t address specifics about the case both because it’s an open investigation and because he said it would be disrespectful. There were six officer involved shootings in Long Beach in 2014, a drop from the unusually high 15 which occurred in 2013. The chief noted that positive policing experiences rarely make it into the media.
He offered to meet with Fields privately after the forum adjourned but she declined, stating that she’d prefer that her attorney be present for such a conversation.
“It’s a tough situation,” Luna said. “She lost her son. I’m a father. If I lost my son or my daughter, I may react negatively like that. We have to realize we’re dealing with a grieving mother.”
But Luna added that even if it was uncomfortable, he both expected and welcomed those kinds of questions.
“There were some tough questions but I wanted them, I was looking forward to the tough questions,” Luna said after the event ended. “As a police department, we’re not beyond critique and we need to be able to answer those tough questions.”
The tough questions and how to overcome the obstacles created by fear and unfamiliarity were the theme of the night. The department rolled out statistics covering what it described as a “blind” and “unbiased” hiring process to the recently released report that showed that violent crime in the city is declining. Included in the packets handed out at the door was literature on job openings in the department and the procedures of how to file a citizen complaint against an officer.
On the topic of racial bias, and in response to one question which read “Are you here for black people?”, Luna cited persons who asked that because he’s latino if he’s going to side with latino people.
“I’m blue,” Luna said. “I’m a police officer. I police everybody.”
The night didn’t satisfy everyone. Questions went unanswered and there was intermittent heckling of the officers on stage. But most people acknowledged that this forum wasn’t going to solve everything. It was more of a start than an end. The key is to keep the lines of communication open.
“I saw a room full of people, they care,” Luna said. “And anytime you get a lot of people who care about their community and if there’s change to be made it’s only going to be made by communicating. Listening, taking and trying to figure it out.”
That sentiment was echoed by Sanders, who closed out the event with a heartfelt statement that seemed to bring a calm over an evening that was peppered with the distrust and anger of some of the attendees.
"We want a better Long Beach,” Sanders said. “It doesn’t make sense for another young man to die. And we can do that through dialogue.”
[Editor's note: This story originally stated that the number of officer involved shootings in 2013 was 22, however, this number includes accidental discharges and shootings involving animals. The number of shootings involving suspects in 2013 was 15.]