Citizen advocates, mayor aim for community policing  

Published 6:49 am Friday, July 29, 2016


Michael O’Ree is a pastor, a Youthbuild counselor, a former police volunteer and a black man. That is why, as the nation deals with an increasingly visible divide between law enforcement and African-American youth, O’Ree says he can see both sides of the argument.

To young men, O’Ree’s message is clear, “When the police stop you, you shut your mouth and listen to them. We should respect the authoritative figure, which is the police.”

However, he adds, “I have been on the wrong end of the stick a couple of times.”

And O’Ree said he understands where the frustration comes from.

“I was a black male who had a gun to his head by a white officer, so I can relate to how (African-Americans) feel,” O’Ree said.

One of those times was the result of a traffic stop when he was in college. A taillight was out. It was a small, routine matter, that ended up with a gun drawn and, O’Ree said, some racist epithets directed at him.

In his case, O’Ree said his interactions with police inspired him to get involved with and serve the community. O’Ree is a former city council member and he traces his campaign to those interactions with the police.

“That inspired me to run for politics to be honest,” he said. “Officers calling you (racist slurs) and putting a gun to your head. Some officers stoop to that level. … The problem is you got a small percentage of bad cops and you got a small percentage of ignorant black people that make it bad for both groups.

“We have allowed that small percent to be a bigger voice than the majority of both groups. We’ve allowed the fear to take root in the police department and in our neighborhoods; it’s just running wild. And so the fear is there. When fear is present we all have a problem.”

The pastor said he’s been talking to Bogalusa youth at Youthbuild. The program trains teenagers who have for whatever reason left high school. Through the program, the students learn trades and skills and, O’Ree hopes, some common sense.

Lately he’s been talking with the students — most of whom are African-American, although there are white students and even a Hispanic student — about policing in an attempt to lessen some of that fear.

“A lot of the black guys feel like the police are targeting them,” he said. “I am listening to them talk and they feel like police don’t have any respect for them. They view them as thugs or crooks.”

O’Ree said he believes the perspective of both groups can change if the two sides can just meet each other on neutral ground. This has happened a little bit already.

“Police officers have been to several churches in Bogalusa,” he said. “And not just black officers, but white officers have been to churches. It helps. It shows they care. They don’t have to come.”

But, there could be more.

O’Ree favors community policing, a technique that embeds patrol officers firmly in certain neighborhoods.

“They’re assigned to the neighborhoods so they get to know people,” he said. The police officers stop by social clubs or schools and they visit.

“You just get in the community and you’re visible and in uniform. So you can try to eliminate some of this fear,” he said. “A lot of black guys, I’m going to be honest with you, they get pulled over by the police, and they think it could be their last stop. “That’s their reality. And whatever their perception is, that’s their reality. … Me and you might live in different worlds but that’s their perception.”

O’Ree said both sides want respect.

“I think the black community just wants every officer to value every black life,” he said. “They don’t want any hook up. They don’t want to get ahead, they just want every officer to look at them and say, ‘You’re equal to me; you’re not beneath me.”

He said he knows adult African-Americans who get pulled over because they have flashy cars.

“I got friends who got rims and they get stopped just because they have a nice, fancy car, even though they work at the mill and they got legal jobs,” O’Ree said.

He explained that if both sides had more interaction with each other, tensions would be lessened.

“Whatever perception I had about a race, if I knew that person a little better, it would kill that perception because I knew you,” O’Ree said.

Mayor Wendy Perrette said she’s proud of putting more police on the street.

“When I was running, my goal was to put more officers on the street,” she said. “We’ve increased the number of officers on the street and now they are more proactive than reactive. I attribute this to more officers on the street.”

Perrette said Bogalusa had a small community policing program once in the past, and she said she’s in favor of starting it again. The current police chief, Joe Culpepper, is retiring and Perrette said she expects the new chief to respond to the needs in the community — that includes establishing a community policing program.

“I am all for something like that,” Perrette said. “That’s going to be one of the things I’m going to look for is community policing.”

Such a program could put police in situations with civilians that go beyond mere law enforcement, and this could help mend whatever distrust may exist.

Marvin Austin Jr., a youth leader with Bethlehem Baptist Church, said the distrust starts early in African-American children.

“I used to be a sheriff’s deputy, a jailer, for Washington Parish,” he said. “And I know my 5-year-old. He wants to be a police officer and yet when we sees the police go by with their lights on he says, ‘there goes the bad man.’ And it’s not anything we taught him. It’s what we sees on the news.”

Austin said it doesn’t have to be this way and he points to the example of Tommy Norman, an officer with the North Little Rock (Ark.) Police Department. Norman has earned national recognition by hosting community events between the police and residents in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the town.

“He’s bringing chips in and juice in,” said Austin. “He’s doing this not just to help out the community, but because when stuff happens, people will come and tell him what’s going on.

“It goes the same way with our community and the police. People feel like you need to care about them in order to trust you.”

Austin said regular, informal fun events could help the community.

“The city is a good city, it’s just off,” he said. “We don’t get to know each other anymore. It’s all business, no pleasure. … We party for Mardi Gras but we need something to formally say were going to stamp out racism and we’re going to stamp out bad police. That’s what we need to aim for.”

To that end, O’Ree said he will be working with local law enforcement in the coming school year to bring them into classrooms around the community.

“Me, as a pastor, I am getting with some Bogalusa police officers, some sheriff’s deputies some state police and we’re going to educate the students,” he said.

O’Ree said he wants young people to understand what they need to should they get pulled over.

“I think the police want black people to be respectful and do what they’re asked,” he said.

O’Ree said even if an officer’s request doesn’t make sense or if a person disagrees with it, obey the request.

“Do it,” he said. “Go to court and tell the judge your story … Officers want respect. If they tell you something, it’s not time to debate or argue or resist. Listen, and live to tell your own story.”