Forum devises remedies for police, African-American community divide
The Graduate College of Social Work on Saturday hosted the third and final session of the “Social Justice Solutions: A Community Activist Forum Series,” which aimed to develop strategies for advancement through analyzing policies and systematic racism.
Opening the discussion was the event’s keynote speaker, Will Francis, government relations director of the National Association of Social Workers — Texas Chapter.
“We need to get to a place where everyone can come together and talk about issues of racism in our system because it goes very deep and impacts all that we do,” Francis said.
Francis said there are people in education talking about the education gap and people in the child welfare system talking about disproportionality. While they all look at the impact of racism and its effect on people, they are calling it using different words, putting it in different boxes and not talking to each other.
“We have to get to the root of this,” Francis said. “This is about something endemic that goes back to the birth of our country and the way our systems were set up.”
Francis also discussed the issue with laws and how people need to be vigilant. If a law is made trying to fix something that already happened, a lot of small things can get “swept up” and make the situation worse, he said.
During the panel discussion, Martha Montalvo, interim HPD police chief, addressed the police’s use of force and how it is monitored.
“Hopefully, by early part of 2017, we’ll start collecting data regarding use of force not only in large police departments, but also federal agencies,” Montalvo said.
Oversight of police force is also important according to Amanda Edwards, Houston City Council vice chair of the budget and fiscal affairs committee. Houston oversight committees look at incidents, make recommendations on when footage should be released and discuss body cameras, among other affairs.
“Speaking from a social work practitioner perspective, I think we need to own the power that we have and the level of expertise that we acquire,” said Kenya Minott, doctoral candidate at GCSW. “We bring a welcome experience to the idea political engagement, and I think sometimes we shy away from policies and politics.”
Diffusion is the key
Panelists elaborated on escalation techniques that are used in different areas when issues occur.
In Houston schools, Rhonda Skillern-Jones, HISD school board trustee, stressed the importance of involving law enforcement only when it is a criminal, and not disciplinary, or behavioral, issue.
Chief Montalvo said when an issue involves the HPD, it is essential for all officers to have proper training on de-escalation. Officers should take the time to adequately assess the situation before acting and gather resources behind them, she said.
HPD officers have mandatory crisis training that everyone needs to participate in, including the chief. They have practices in play to try and acquire long-term solutions for social issues including mental health, homelessness and substance abuse.
Montalvo looks to build trust between the police and the community besides reducing crime, which is one of HPD’s goals.
“What I tell and expect from our police officers is that when we go out there to try and address a crime problem, also look at ways that we can engage our community,” Montalvo said. “The people that we serve have a right to know what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it.”
Latavia Brandyberg, a GCSW alumnae, said social workers should specifically target the mental complexities that officers have to deal with to have better grounding, mental health-wise.
Brandyberg said that social workers can understand the backgrounds of police officers and can intervene on a preventative level. This is because they can probably foresee the triggers and natural biases the officers already have, two elements that psychologists aren’t necessarily trained to deal with until after the symptoms have manifested.
Although unrelated to GCSW, nutrition senior Delynn Daniels was in attendance to get more involved with the community.
“This event is definitely focused more towards social work, but I think that the issues are broad enough for just anyone who wants to be involved,” Daniels said. “I would like to see them do this again. Hopefully, they can get the word out and have it on a larger scale.”
Maranda Harris, GCSW senior and the creator of this series after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, closed the forum. She reached out to faculty, expressing how this is a very important topic and how, as social workers, their involvement is needed.
With the issue of racial injustice, Harris wanted to analyze the various systems that contributed and lead up to this while promoting community activism.
“I hope for this a continuous thing and for it to be something that lasts through the semesters,” Harris said. “They have been truly supportive at the GCSW.”