Ferndale Group Tackles Racism, “Suspicious Person” Calls Only Part of the Problem

Ferndale Group Tackles Racism, “Suspicious Person” Calls Only Part of the Problem

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Sept. 16, 2018)

Ferndale, MI- The internet is full of stories that have captured the nation’s attention around what happens when black people are singled out because of the color of their skin. Videos like that of BBQ Becky who called the police on a black family having a cookout in the park, or the man stopped by police while moving into his own apartment in New York after a neighbor called about a “suspicious person,” or the grad student whose neighbor called the police because she dozed off in the common room of their dorm, or the black man not allowed to use the restroom at Starbucks, are among those trending recently.

The videos may seem ridiculous, and white people across the country have joined in shunning those who have been caught treating others badly. Yet those same people may not realize at what level bias may be impacting how they themselves interact with people of other colors.

And in the black community, the videos are not laughed at for their unusualness, but because they are relatable. Subtly racist encounters as so common there is even a hashtag #LivingWhileBlack to identify them.

Members of the Ferndale community, including the Police Chief and Public Information Officer, met recently for a group discussion called “Think Before You Dial, A Conversation on #LivingWhileBlack.”

This was part of an ongoing effort by the Ferndale Inclusion Network, a project of Citizens for Fair Ferndale.  The idea is that by discussing racism both in the group and out the community, family, workplaces, etc, that people can be more aware and help stop it.

The discussion began with a short film called Living While Black that included clips of BBQ Becky and the others mentioned earlier.  Then the participants broke into small groups to create lists of instances of racism they’ve seen in the community.

“These are not things that happen in someone else’s neighborhood; these things happen here,” said Kat LaTosch who helped organize the event.

Coded language was a common theme.  This is where people refer to characteristics or behaviors that could be stereotypically associated with people of color, without actually referencing race.  For example, in recent discussions of development residents opposed to adding more apartments to the neighborhood because, they said, “renters” were undesirable, that low income would bring down the value of the community and that Ferndale did not need more people.

Other coded language includes saying “people from Detroit,” or “people not from Ferndale,” when talking about people one perceives as “not belonging here,” “suspicious,” or “outsiders.”  Like “Outsiders come in and mess up our parks,” or “People from Detroit bring crime.”

Other examples were shared. “When white kids play basketball at the Kulick Center, no one calls the cops,” said one attendee.

Another said that black people are watched more carefully by employees in the stores. 

Another said there is a perception that black people are more violent, so they are more likely to be punished for being loud or fighting.

Another shared a story of  how a stranger was afraid to get in the elevator with them because they were black.

Another had been called a racial slur while driving.

The video of BBQ Becky was key to the discussion, and attendees wanted to know if superfluous calls were happening in Ferndale.

Police Sargent Baron Brown said that when people call about a suspicious person, they often will whisper “African American” when asked for the person’s race, a sign that just bringing up race can cause discomfort.

Brown brought a slideshow with statistics about the Ferndale Police and their calls for service.  From Jan. 1 to July 31 there were 35 calls that involved a “suspicious” male. Of those, 13 were for a white male, 9 were for a black male, 4 were for unknown race, and 9 were not applicable.

In regards to whether people in Ferndale call the police on black people who are not doing anything wrong, Brown said “We can say it doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen.”

Though the number alone did not show overall implicit bias, the reasons for some of the calls do.

Brown explained that with the white males there was usually a defined act that made them suspicious.  Examples in this data set included watching porn in the park, being passed out on a bench, throwing a dead rat, robbing a bank, and being involved in a hit and run.

For the black males some reasons given were specific. Yet others included walking around with a snow shovel (in February), walking with a bulge under sweatshirt, standing outside a restaurant but not being a customer, and riding by a house four times.

Police Chief Vincent Palazzolo explained that dispatchers will try to narrow down what a person is doing to determine if there is a danger or not, that is it not a person’s skin color that makes them suspicious, but their actions.

There are also cases where people contact the police because they are not happy with diversity around them.  “We get regular calls from people near schools, from people who don’t like the students,” he said.  “As police officers we sometimes feel like we’re being used as pawns for somebody else’s agenda.” Other examples could include noise complaints, loitering, or that a stranger is casing a neighborhood.

Race has been an issue within the schools, and among neighbors of school buildings.  The City of Ferndale’s population 83.4% white. Yet the Ferndale School District also includes Pleasant Ridge, part of Oak Park and part of Royal Oak Township.  Pleasant Ridge is 90% white.  Yet Oak Park is 57.4% black, and Royal Oak Township is 95.3% black.  In 2016 the district started a restructuring process that included combining elementary schools, giving all students an equitable primary experience.  Challenging conversations happened within the schools and the community, partly due to race.

Concerns of racial inequity has also arisen in regards to the police themselves.  There is national debate over the use of force and racial profiling, as well as local examples. In 2014 the American Civil Liberties Union accused the Ferndale Police of racial profiling in traffic stops, and in 2016 an officer was charged with assault for hitting a detainee while in handcuffs.

The department has taken steps towards improvement, including assigning Sgt. Brown to Public Information Officer to improve communications with the community, undergoing an outside review of the organization, hosting citizen police academies, promoting Palazzolo to Chief after the former chief’s retirement, and participating in the Ferndale Inclusion Network.  They have also been using body cams department-wide since April 2018. The footage is being reviewed when there are incidents, as well as being checked randomly for all officers at least twice through the course of the year, for a total of over 600 viewed per year.

“Often people have issues with the police department, but don’t talk to the police department,” Sgt. Brown said. “We’re here to be part of the conversation.”

A question arose about the lack of diversity in the department.  Chief Palazzolo spoke of the difficulties in hiring for law enforcement positions.  “People do not want to be the police,” he said. “It used to be hundreds of people competing for a few spots.  I had five open spots and got 20 applicants.  I can’t even get people to apply.  If you know any, send them to me.”

The discussion left attendees wanting to talk more, and hungry for solutions.

“We’re not going to solve racism tonight, but we have scratched the surface and can keep thinking about these things, and having these conversations out in the community,” LaTosch said.

The Ferndale Inclusion Network meets quarterly, and has a Facebook page that suggests ways people can raise awareness about racism. Learn more at https://www.facebook.com/FerndaleForAll/.

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