Stillwater residents believe progress being made with racial justice, but slowly

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May 22—The U.S. seems in the midst of a new civil rights era, marked by unrest that intensified last year after George Floyd died when a Milwaukee police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. A horrified crowd watched, tried to intervene and documented the incident, so Floyd's death made international news and sparked protests across the U.S. and around the globe.

Stillwater residents and the chiefs of two police departments shared their impressions following the trauma and unrest of 2020.

Gregory Samuel II is a student at Oklahoma State University, originally from Oklahoma City. He's an author and an activist. He was part of a student group that organized several marches over the past year to bring attention to tensions, racial insensitivity and racist incidents on the OSU campus and around the world at large.

Samuel said that as a young Black man, he has been pulled over by police, even in Stillwater, and detained for what seemed like excessive questions. He sees people on both sides reacting constantly, whether it's "champions of change or the extremists of status quo," and he thinks many moderate Americans are trying to figure out where they fit in.

Samuel believes there has been progress in terms of achieving greater racial equality, but progress has been slow. The election of President Barack Obama was seen by some as a sign of how far America had come, but Samuel calls it "a really well-planned illusion of a post-racial America."

"It's really the start of a conversation," he said.

And since 2016, he's seen people emboldened to express sentiments they might have, at one time, been shamed for saying.

Samuel was pleasantly surprised to see a community protest in Stillwater last year. He does perceive a cultural change and more discussion happening, especially among younger people. Some responses he sees from white allies seem like "a combination of white guilt and white sympathy."

Keeping the energy going after recent events have faded from popular consciousness will be a challenge, he said. And for Samuel, meaningful action would have to include true reparations. He doesn't believe Black Americans can feel like they belong until that happens. He acknowledges there is little agreement about what reparations might look like and says some people have even gone back to the old promise of "40 acres and a mule" and calculated interest. But proposals like improved social programs and free college are more common.

Samuel referenced a quote from novelist James Baldwin: "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost, almost all the time."

Given the slow, stop-and-start progress made over the years — in spite of so many generations that wanted better for the next — he's not sure what to hope for long-term.

"I really don't see this country being more conducive for the African American," he said.

Michael Daviss is a long-time Stillwater resident who is politically active and keeps an eye on the goings-on at City Hall.

Daviss says he was always warned to be careful out in the world. He didn't get "The Talk" many Black families have with their sons about how to avoid trouble when dealing with the police — at least, not as a single conversation. But he was told to be careful in interactions with law enforcement.

"My stepfather said, 'You are a Black man. Don't do anything you don't want to explain to authorities,'" he said. "... My folks talked to me all the time ... He said, 'Michael, you're a Black man. That's what you are. Never tell the authorities anything they cannot check out. If they ask you a question, tell them the truth, but make sure it's a truth they can check out.'"

Davis said racism is still a problem in society at large, but he believes there has been some improvement.

"White folks have finally figured out they can call each other a racist and tell it on each other and still, the world did not cave in," he said. "White supremacy has been around since the first white men landed on these shores. [Things are not] better just because I can walk in this place and walk back here to talk to a reporter. That just means that Michael Daviss carried himself in such a manner that he is able to get that respect."

Daviss is glad a jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the death of George Floyd. But, speaking before Chauvin receives his sentence and before a federal grand jury handed down more civil rights charges against Chauvin for another incident, Daviss said he isn't expecting much when the sentence for Floyd's death is handed down.

"What I expected going into the trial was pretty much what I saw," he said, noting the prosecutor's repetition of the phrase, "He didn't let up and he didn't get up."

Daviss doesn't think Chauvin would have ever been brought to trial if video had not have been recorded by outraged bystanders. He takes issue with assertions by other police officers that Chauvin was a "bad apple."

"Derek Chauvin has been a bad apple for 20 years," Daviss said. "The other thing the prosecutor didn't jump on is that Chauvin was training that day."

He believes Chauvin meant to kill Floyd and sees his death as the continuation of a pattern of killing that has gone on for years.

The social unrest and general stress of the past year has taken a toll on many people, Stillwater Police Chief Jeff Watts said. He believes people are frustrated and emotions are ramped up even more due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept people at home and increased their reliance on media — especially social media — for information.

Watts calls the killing of George Floyd by a police officer "a horrendous event, no doubt" that damaged the image of all officers. But he disagrees with charges of systemic racism in policing. He blames the media for presenting an unrealistic picture of the more than 800,000 law enforcement officers across the country and worsening tensions by "making it seem like police killing Black men for no reason is an epidemic."

Good law enforcement officers are on edge and find themselves afraid to engage and do their jobs, Watts said.

"The George Floyd incident was not just officers doing their job," he said. "I don't condone any type of unnecessary force ... The George Floyd incident has had such a profound effect."

He said the situation in Stillwater is much less tense than in some places, and he feels blessed to have such a supportive public. But even in Stillwater, officers are reassessing, and it's harder to recruit due to perceptions, he said.

In the year since George Floyd died, SPD has implemented several new programs, including the development of a multi-jurisdictional Crisis Intervention Team to handle mental health calls and the purchase of body worn cameras, which was recently approved by the City Council. Both were in the works before Floyd's death and the civil unrest that followed, Watts said.

Increased training in de-escalation and defensive tactics has been implemented, along with closer mentoring for officers to catch small issues before they become big ones.

"Problems get handled before they become newsworthy," Watts said.

He and his command staff encourage officers to get out of their cars and mingle with the public so they can get to know community members and community members can get to know them, but Watts said that's been difficult recently because the department is short-staffed and officers often find themselves racing from call to call.

The formation of the CIT was a response to the dramatic increase in mental health calls SPD handles. Watts estimates that since he joined the department in 1991, the number of mental health calls officers respond to has risen from one or two a month to sometimes as many as 10 a day.

The new body cameras will supplement cameras in patrol cars, giving a more complete depiction of events and how the officer handled them in cases of misconduct. It will also show how incidents play out and allow people to see what the officer saw, he said. Watts thinks that can make a difference.

"Our community, I think, trusts us, but I think they want verification that that trust is warranted," he said. "... Being able to see it and understand it let's you make your own decision ... We've had very few of these contentious events but it only takes one to launch a huge public outcry."

Watts believes communication is the key to building and maintaining trust.

That's a statement Oklahoma State University Police Chief Leon Jones also made when talking about how his department has responded to the past year.

"There definitely needs to be change," Jones said. "A lot of that is us listening."

Jones said his officers are out on campus, interacting with the community every day. His department has implemented a program with community engagement officers assigned to each area of campus, similar to the old beat cops. It's classic community policing, he said. Transparency is also a key, from writing every detail about an interaction in the report to his goal of getting body cams for officers in addition to car cameras. In today's world, officers just expect to be under scrutiny.

"We know that somebody's watching and recording," Jones said. "And that helps us hold ourselves accountable."

He said his officers still have a duty to perform, but campus policing is different from municipal policing because his officers have more time to meet and greet everyone who comes on campus. The atmosphere on campus is less likely to create an "us versus them" mentality. But they have the challenge of interacting with people from many different places and cultures, who have different customs or have had different experiences with police.

Working with a young population that is experiencing independent living for the first time can also be a challenge. Just telling someone in Generation Z to "Do it because I said so," isn't going to work well, Jones said. It's important to explain why, if you want to get buy in from the current generation of young people.

"We taught our kids 'Be bold and brave' and 'You have to be able to speak up,'" he said. "...It's really not a bad thing to know why you're doing something."

Several times over the past year, his officers found themselves providing protection for students at rallies or protests where people were very critical of the police. But Jones said that's just part of the job.

Growing up Black in a small Texas town taught him there would be situations when someone might make assumptions or not like him because of how he looked, he said. It prepared him for putting on a police uniform.

"As a police officer, we can't take anything personally," he said.

Jones thinks having a small department is helpful because officers can police one another and check on their colleagues' mental states.

Constant training is another thing he emphasizes.

The value of transparency was a theme Jones returned to several times. It's not something that has always been present in police departments, he said.

"OSU PD has increased that over the years," he said. "We couldn't before. I don't know why. We just weren't."

Jones thinks people fear what they don't understand, which makes engagement and having conversations that much more important. It's also something his officers enjoy.

"I think we're getting there," he said. "... Not all contacts are going to be favorable, but everyone is going to be treated with respect."