AMORY – West Amory citizens gathered with elected officials Feb. 13 for the second community meeting in three weeks at St. Paul M.B. Church initiated by alleged civil rights violations by an Amory police officer. Host pastor Rev. L.T. Mabry opened the meeting by invoking the theme of “Be Strong Together.”
“Anybody can complain about what’s wrong. We’re here to see how we can fix it,” he said.
Floyd Smith has coordinated the meetings in response to citizen complaints of the alleged civil rights violations. He expressed appreciation to the representatives from the city government and police department who were in attendance and then turned the program over to police chief Ronnie Bowen.
“While I’m not at liberty to discuss individual cases, we’ve always worked with the whole community. We don’t work for each other – we work for you. Ninety percent of the job is providing service, not law enforcement,” said Bowen, who is marking his 40th year in law enforcement in Amory. “We have a good crew, Their hearts are in the right place.”
He said mistakes are sometimes made while dealing with traffic stops and responding to calls for service.
“Sometimes a situation leaves a bad flavor if not handled properly. My daily goal is to help someone, whether on the force or on the street,” he said.
Bowen addressed a question about citizens’ rights from Charles Darden by describing the professional protocol used.
“We always address a citizen as Mr. or Ms. We tell them why we determined cause to stop them and ask if they’re aware of what happened. Once we check their documents and do a background check, we inform them of their rights,” he said.
The matter of a citizen’s review board from the previous meeting was raised again but panned by Bowen and West Point Assistant Police Chief Kennedy Meaders.
“Officers wear a body cam, which should be on, and it will tell the story of the encounter. Even though we believe in transparency, personnel matters are still off limits for a public forum,” he said.
Meaders conceded the process still has its hurdles and cited the population he serves in West Point as an example.
“Where 35 percent of the population appears in court 65 percent of the time, there is a problem,” he said.
Bowen and Meaders also discussed the parameters for probable cause for arrest and aspects of police academy training that measure an officer’s fitness for service.
Mayor Brad Blalock said the answer to combating the fear of the police is adequate communication.
“A barrier needs to be broken down that is based on misconception. It starts with us being more approachable,” he said.
Blalock said the city has a handbook addressing all the issues brought up at the community meeting, which is used in enforcing discipline in the practices of all city employees.
“Our problems will never be entirely fixed, but we can try to do a little better every day. I’m glad for occasions like this because we don’t always have a chance to talk,” he said.
Blalock addressed the concerns for lack of citizen opportunity by saying efforts to improve community relations start with school children.
“West Amory Elementary School hosts exercising and healthy eating programs with both police and firefighters present to interact with the kids. We need to build on that,” he said.
Blalock conceded that outreach to older youth has been limited by cuts in federal funding for after school and summer job programs as well as concerns over liability and employment issues. He suggested the gap needs to be bridged by nonprofits and faith-based ministries such as the host church.
Meaders cited a recently launched midnight basketball league in West Point using a donated school gym for activities from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. to keep youth off the streets.
“Our officers are present. These programs need corporate sponsors to continue,” he said.
Mabry said good intentions aren’t always backed up by enough planning.
“We start a lot, but we don’t finish it,” he said. “Let’s all find something positive to say and build a positive culture.”