Town hosts discussion on race, policing

STRASBURG – Across the nation, relationships between community members and law enforcement officers have fractured, leaving a void filled by fear, animosity and violence. The only way to bridge these divides, according to a regional National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president, is communication.

Alford “AD” Dennis Carter, III, president of the Warren-Page County NAACP branch, led Strasburg’s “Coffee With a Cop” program Wednesday. The program was an open conversation between NAACP officials, community leaders, Strasburg police officers and Strasburg residents.

Carter said the only way to solve a problem is to communicate enough to at least find out that one exists.

“When we talk to people, and populations, it’s not about the officers and law enforcement against the people, it’s just that they’ve never spoken to each other,” Carter said. “They don’t know what he’s about.”

The event hosted Judith James, program coordinator and senior advisor of the NAACP chapter, Reverend Alfred Woods, retired pastor and current associate pastor of the First Baptist Church in Front Royal, Strasburg Chief of Police Tim Sutherly, Sgt. Scotty Thompson, and Sgt. Matthew Spiker, all around the same table.

While the conversations proved precarious and at times confrontational, Woods said interactions between police officers and the community members they serve are critical to building trust.

He added that he would like to see officers interacting with churches and communities to build relationships, without the stress of criminal proceedings.

“When you look at the town, ask yourself this question,” he said. “How often do you see an officer in your community on your block? Most of you will say, when something occurs.”

Alongside the community members, several members of Town Council made an appearance and questioned the panel. Councilman Don Le Vine asked poignant questions regarding different issues, like whether to refer to a person of color as “black,” “African-American” or “person of color,” or how to address a citizen’s perception of the town’s neglecting certain services to a person because of his or her color.

In reply, Carter said it’s not the label that matters so much as the decency and respect it takes of asking what a person prefers to be called.

James, replying to his second question, said the woman’s perception of racism probably carries much more than meets the eye.

“It is my contention that what we’ve been seeing in the news is a function of unhealed harm that dates back to slavery on both sides, black and white,” she said.

Accompanying discussions on race relations, both Sutherly and Thompson said there are considerations to be made for how citizens need to understand the danger and uncertainty that comes with every traffic stop an officer makes.

Given the emphasis the panel placed on communication, two members invited all residents to two upcoming community events.

James invited all residents to an event at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 6, put on by Coming to the Table, an organization that provides a forum to discuss the modern scars. The meeting will take place at the Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown and host conversations about American slavery.

Additionally, Woods encouraged all residents to come the NAACP Warren-Page County Branch’s Freedom Fund Banquet. The event is designed to fundraise the organization’s day-to-day business, and will be hosting Cornell William Brooks, president of the national organization. It will take place Sept. 17, and tickets cost $55 each.

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or jzuckerman@nvdaily.com