FAIRMONT — As it began to deliberate language from which it hopes to develop a request urging city police to prohibit certain restraint and entry tactics, the Pastoral Alliance for Social Justice and Change heard from a former police officer-turned-sociology professor on Thursday.
James Nolan, chair of West Virginia University’s Department of Sociology & Anthropology, addressed pastors and citizens at Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
Nolan’s new book, titled “Policing in an Age of Reform: An Agenda for Research and Practice,” debuts next month.
But the book’s content is well-suited for the Pastoral Alliance’s subject at hand, which centers on communicating with government leaders and police in attempt to bar chokeholds and knee-on-neck restraint tactics, as well no-knock warrants when entering a residence.
“I was invited to speak to the Fairmont Pastoral Alliance about the current problems in American policing. The rogue ‘bad apple’ cop is often depicted as the problem. But this is incorrect,” Nolan said. “Most discrimination and violence in policing results from conforming to policy rather than deviating from it. Violence and discrimination are systemic in policing and only policy change can fix it.”
Nolan said city of Fairmont police are not exempt from discrimination that can be successfully remedied with communication and effort.
In Fairmont, Black citizens comprise about 8% of the population, but they consistently account for more than 20% of arrests, according to FBI statistics Nolan shared with attendees.
Nolan said Black residents of Fairmont are overrepresented in arrest statistics.
From 2010-2019, Nolan noted the percentage of Fairmont crimes in which Black residents were arrested breaks down as such: Arson (60%), Robbery (45%), Aggravated assault (34%), Weapons violations (31%), Possession of marijuana (29%), and Disorderly conduct (24%).
“In the end, I provided the group with a concept of police reform that deemphasizes crime control and law enforcement and focuses more on community building and problem solving. The evidence supports this approach for keeping both the community and the police safer,” Nolan said.
Nolan called the overrepresentation of Black individuals arrested by police “a form of bigotry, just to be blunt about it.”
“African-Americans and whites report using drugs at about the same rate. But if you go into the prison system, you see a difference. I teach a class up at Hazelton (Prison) and there’s like a sea of Black faces. It’s stark and it’s shocking how this happens,” Nolan said.
Nolan said there is a need to move beyond the current arrest-based police system.
“If I arrested everybody in this room and somebody else didn’t arrest anybody, I’d be considered the better cop,” he said.
Fairmont City Manager Valerie Means said she is willing to engage in constructive dialogue about improving relations among the police force and Black citizens, including suggestions for prohibiting the restraint and entry tactics of concern to the Pastoral Alliance.
Means said after receiving the suggestions, she will review the Pastoral Alliance’s requests with both Police Chief Steve Shine and City Attorney Kevin Sansalone.
“Absolutely, we’re willing to engage in a dialogue. We’re willing to look at any kind of language that they might propose,” Means said. “I told them that we’re certainly wanting to review that. They’re supposed to send me some suggested language and the chief and the city attorney and I will take that language and review it. We’ll consider whether or not we need to make any changes to our policies.”
Rev. Richard Bowyer said the Pastoral Alliance is still formulating its collective thoughts on how to approach city government with its concerns and the language expressing them.
“We have no proposal to lay on the line today,” Bowyer told those gathered, “and even if we did, we wouldn’t hold a vote on it. We want to be cautious as to how we proceed. Our relationship with the city is surely important. We’ve got a good relationship with the current mayor. We’ve got a good relationship with Chief Shine. We’ve got a good relationship with the city manager.”
Bowyer said there is no reason for the Pastoral Alliance to attempt to force change or policy.
“We’re thinking strategically. We’re making progress (on the proposal), but we’re doing it carefully, we’re using the kind of wording that has been passed in some locales and are avoiding the kind of things that might create problems in other arenas,” he said.
Mark Staples, pastor at Zion Missionary Baptist Church, said he has been in contact with Means and is looking forward to continuing to work with her on the matter of police tactics.
“I’ve talked with City Manager Means and even went back and prayed with her,” he said. “I told her I appreciate the working relationship we have with her and Police Chief Shine and Mayor Merrifield. It’s a great opportunity for us to work together as pastors and the city. We’re excited about sitting at the table with them.”
The Alliance consists of about 25 spiritual leaders from across the area and state representing a variety of Christian denominations.
The alliance formed in late May this year and shortly thereafter held a “Unity in the Community” peaceful protest to call attention to controversial police tactics, such as the knee-on-neck procedure that killed George Floyd on May 25, an event that triggered protests here in Fairmont, across the nation and world.