Cities across the nation are taking hard looks at police departments in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the protests in response to it. Van Buren is no exception.
“Like the rest of the nation, the tragic death of George Floyd has gripped Van Buren. While some have been shocked by this senseless act of police brutality, many black Americans have described it as a common occurrence,” Van Buren Police Chief Jamie Hammond said in a press release. “Understandably, the integrity and trustworthiness of law enforcement has been called into question. Communities will remain divided unless we are willing to change, and change must start now.”
Floyd, a black man, who was choked to death May 25 on camera in Minneapolis by white police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin and three assisting police officers have been arrested and charged with criminal offenses ranging from second-degree murder to aiding and abetting the murder.
Hammond said he and Van Buren Mayor Joe Hurst worked together to develop a plan they hope shows the city and the surrounding areas that the Van Buren Police Department is one that can be trusted.
“Mr. Floyd’s death never should have happened, and we must learn from it. That we are all created equal as recognized by our nation’s laws must be reflected in our citizens’ and visitors’ interactions with the police, so all people receive the same high-quality service and protection. The men and women of the Van Buren Police Department are committed to providing exceptional, professional police services for our community, and we will work to restore the trust between law enforcement and the public,” Hammond said.
The department will hold professional training June 30 and July 1 for its 51 officers that will focus on diversity, racial understanding, inclusion, cultural considerations, implicit bias, de-escalation practices and mental health.
“This will further enhance our services, make us a better trained department and help ensure fairness,” Hammond said.
He said though he makes a point to tell officers the importance of treating everyone fairly, extra training will help them all.
“I have also told everyone that they need to treat everybody they come into contact with whether they are writing a traffic ticket or taking them to jail or taking any type of complaint as if they were your mom, wife or daughter. I ask them, ‘How would you want your loved one to be treated?’ Treat them that way,” Hammond said.
He noted that often the mentality of police officers is that they are not doing anything wrong, so people need to stop telling them what to do. But he is proud his officers have embraced the importance in further training. Hammond said he expected some pushback in the department to the mandatory training, but he’s been pleasantly surprised that everyone seems to be in agreement this is something that is needed.
Van Buren has a population that is 85% Caucasian with less than 5% of the population black, he said. This might make some believe they do not need to worry about situations that other departments might face, but Hammond said that isn’t the case.
“The whole thing with George Floyd has opened our eyes,” Hammond said. “We need to make sure African Americans feel safe and respected here. This is something we need to do.”
The city will also form a citizen advisory council to review VBPD policies and practices to make certain everyone receives the same high quality service and protection from the force. Hurst said they have been meeting with members of minority groups and professionals to see what steps need to be taken and have started making a list of names for the council.
“Change is needed, and for that to happen, we need to look at ourselves and how we can be better,” Hurst said.
He said the public outcry across the country shows there is a divide between law enforcement and the public. That divide did not just occur, he added. It’s been happening for a while.
“We see an opportunity to work with community leaders, meet with minority groups to try and rebuild trust and show them our commitment to the community and all who live here,” Hurst said.
The department also will support and protect individuals or groups “choosing to exercise their sacred First Amendment right to protest peacefully and lawfully,” he said, noting there was a peaceful protest held in the city June 2.
“I was really proud of the organization, those who protested and our officers, who were all willing to serve and protect the public. I think (the protesters) got the message out, and we want to support them. The right to protest is important to a democracy, and we need to listen,” Hurst said.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson on June 9 announced creation of a Law Enforcement Task Force to develop a a “wide-ranging set of recommendations” on improving law enforcement. The task force, which includes leaders from protests in Little Rock, has no later than Dec. 31 to issue a report to the governor.