‘A Community That Can Get This Done’: Gainesville Holds Telephone Town Hall To Hear Opinions About Local Policing Reforms

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Aeriel Lane’s 8-year-old son asks if his mother will be the next victim of police brutality he hears about.

She discussed this concern on Wednesday during a town hall held by the City of Gainesville in order to discuss police relations with a panel of speakers. Community members were encouraged to dial in by phone to listen and ask questions.

“From his perspective, he looks at his parents and family as people who are basically his superheroes,” Lane said. “He has never really considered that just being brown on a daily basis could be an occupational hazard.”

Along with Lane, a community activist and organizer of the recent March for our Freedom, the panel included Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe, Gainesville Police Chief Tony Jones, Police Advisory Board Member Rosa Williams, and Dr. Patricia Hilliard-Nunn, UF African American Studies Program adjunct associate professor.

Poe welcomed all guests and listeners to the town hall at 7:15 p.m. and stressed the importance of keeping a strong partnership between the listeners, Gainesville Police Department and the entire city. He mentioned the conversation comes in light of recent events, including the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department.

“We want to hear your questions, we want to hear your concerns and we also want to ask for active support and commitment, as we work together to address our racial equity gaps in Gainesville,” Poe said.

Hilliard-Nunn thanked Poe for arranging the conversation and reminded listeners that the racial issues people are discussing do not come as a surprise to her. America was built on a foundation of white supremacy and at one point, Alachua County was the seventh-largest slave owning county, she said.

Lynching is sadly a part of the county’s history and state’s history, she said.

“What we are seeing in the nation is a duplication of what’s happening here in Alachua County,” she said, “and people are tired of it.”

Williams introduced herself and said she has been working in Gainesville for over 30 years. She has observed that things in her community have not significantly changed in decades.

“What has been happening has been covered up under the rug, but we do have lots of problems here in Gainesville,” she said.

She said there are problems not only within the police department, but within attitudes of the general public. Not everything can be blamed on the police or city of Gainesville, she said.

Lane spoke on the panel about the process of creating and carrying out what she viewed as a successful protest. She was thrilled to see people of all colors, safely and peacefully protesting throughout Gainesville with police officials guiding protestors through streets.

“A sense of community and building bridges between us and them [police] is really important right now moving forward,” she said.

A listener named Bethany asked about the movement to defund the police and how that will affect the Gainesville police department and community at large.

Even if there is support to defund the police, it cannot happen overnight, Poe said in response. He said the Gainesville City Commission will be having discussions about how that could be implemented.

“Certainly, we are going to have law, but we are going to have it in a just way where citizens have input about where that money goes,” Hillard-Nunn said in response to the question of defunding the police.

Last year, the Gainesville police department responded to 93,510 calls within city limits just from citizens, said Jones. While the conversation is important to have, he said officers try to respond to service calls in ways that correctly address people’s needs.

Another caller was Jorge Campos, Gainesville police chief inspector, who stated that he has made several arrests and convictions for officers who have been reported engaging in misconduct. Several policies have been accepted from the online campaign “8 Can’t Wait,” which calls for eight forms of police reform, he said.

Poe is excited about the conversation but is unsure about how long the process of creating a new policing model will take. He asked listeners who are particularly enthusiastic about this topic to bring their ideas and participate in the discussion but also be patient with the city.

Lane preferred to call the movement a strategic allocation of budgeting because the word “defund” can have a negative connotation, she said. She agreed with Poe that the process of restructuring law enforcement responsibilities and oversight will take time.

The final caller asked about the racial disparity when it comes to Gainesville arrests.

“We are coming up with strategies that would less likely introduce children or adults into the criminal justice system,” Jones said.

Closing the panel, Poe said he wants to see Gainesville band together to help reimagine how they serve the community. He said the work will be difficult, but “there will be optimism because we know we live in a community that can get this done.”

About Ariana Aspuru

Ariana is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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