COPS Webcast unites local community, police

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Local members of the clergy, concerned citizens and police officers came together in Columbiana last week for the COPS Connect Webcast on Law Enforcement Use of Force.

Local participants looked on at the Columbiana Police Department as a live webcast featuring a panel of law enforcement experts, legal expects, police public information officials and the media were given details little by little as a hypothetical tragic situation unfolded.

In the end, the make believe scenario involved a 15-year-old black male, who was not involved in a crime being shot at five times and hit once in the chest by a white police officer who thought a cellular phone was a gun.

The webcast panel discussed what went wrong, how the community and the media would respond to the situation and what could be done to build trust between the police and the community to avert such situations in the future and to help diffuse reaction when it occurs.

The Webcast comes at a pivotal time when three Birmingham police officers were recently shot and killed in the Ensley community.

The local panel, seated in the training room of the Columbiana Police Department, evaluated the webcast and held discussions of their own.

The webcast began with the panel being told of a robbery and suspects fleeing in a blue Pontiac.

They were told how a police officer spotted a car he believed to be the suspect vehicle with three people inside and began pursuit.

Earlier discussion from the webcast panel centered on why the lone officer began pursuit of three people without calling for backup and how he had given away the advantage of surprise by turning on his blue light.

Columbiana Police Chief Michael Lann began the local panel discussion of what had been seen at that point.

Lann said a doctor on the webcast panel had been correct when he said police officers always expect the worst in a situation.

&uot;We train ourselves to expect a terrorist is in the car … or a bank robber is in the car when it’s Fred Guarino,&uot; he said.

The local panel also discussed a recent FATS exercise in which members of the community were given a taste of what police officers face in computer-generated scenarios. Armed with mace containers and pistols that shoot bursts of air instead of bullets at computer-generated images, citizens were faced with on-the-spot decisions of when and if they should use force and what kind they should try.

Police Officer Johnny Brown explained that use of force is justified when a police officer’s life or someone else’s is endangered.

As the webcast resumed, a journalist was stating that the race of the persons involved &uot;could contribute to the significance of the story.&uot;

When it was later pointed out in local discussion that race should not matter, a child shot by a police officer is a tragic situation whether that child be black or white, members of the local panel explained the opinion that race does matter.

They echoed one of the panelists on the webcast who had said race becomes important due to the nation’s history.

Local panelists agreed.

One local participant lamented that if the kids in the vehicle had only stopped, a tragic situation could have been avoided.

Chief Lann noted that youngsters usually go through a rebellious period between the ages of 13 and 18.

He also said that parents will often tell a small child, &uot;If you don’t straighten up, I’m going to get him (a nearby police officer) to put you in jail.&uot;

Lann said as a result, a wall is erected between the child and the police that will last for years.

Local resident Soline Madison said one way police could break down the wall between themselves and

the community is &uot;to get out in the community and talk with the kids and tell them to be good and have a great day.&uot;

Lann noted that Columbiana Police have given away more than 500 bicycle helmets to youngsters.

Local resident Debra Chapman pointed out that police recently pitched in to help the Egg and Butter Community with a street clean-up effort.

Among those in attendance were the Rev. Larry M. Truss, David Abrams, Larry Pickett, Florence P. Hale, Edward Underwood, Deborah Chapman, Frieda Abrams, Zeke Haselden, Danny Crowson, Soloine Madison, Porter Jones, Stacy Walkup, Police Chief Michael Lann, Sgt. Phillip Howell, Officer Wayne Knight, St. Johnny Brown, Sgt. Lamar Vick, Officer Donny Duke and Dispatcher Leigh Shultz