Project for Deeper Understanding panelists hold candid discussion on race and police issues
A diverse group of panelists participating in the Project for Deeper Understanding forum on Thursday did not sugarcoat their feelings or experiences surrounding the treatment of minorities by those in law enforcement.
The Project for Deeper Understanding, a Park City issue group, hosted a candid discussion on the relationship between police and minorities before an audience of more than 30 people. The two-hour conversation covered issues such as race, class and the community’s relationship with local law enforcement.
The panelists were: Summit County Sheriff Justin Martinez; Jane Patten, executive director of Peace House; Laura Pepe Grimaldo, a Peace House staffer; Greg Stephens, a Summit County resident; Park City attorney Joe Tesch; former federal Judge Samuel Alba; and Sharon Yamen, assistant professor of legal studies at Utah Valley University. Summit County Attorney Robert Hilder moderated.
Yamen, who identifies herself as Jewish and from Iraq, described situations she has had that could be perceived as racially motivated.
“I’ve had it happen to me. I get stopped multiple times when I’m traveling through the airport,” Yamen said. “But if they think I look like a terrorist, alright. I know I’m not, but if it’s for security purposes I hope they are stopping everyone not just me.”
Stephens, who has lived in Summit County for 11 years, said he has not personally encountered a situation with local law enforcement where he felt targeted for being black.
“I try not to pinpoint that this happened to me because I’m black. I try not to let that be the end all be all and, honestly, law enforcement here has been great,” Stephens said. “The only run-ins that I’ve had I’ve asked for myself like for speeding.”
However, Stephens later acknowledged that his experiences as a black man in Utah may be significantly different than what one may encounter in more urban cities and he recounted an incident when he was driving around Chicago to attend some meetings and he was stopped for speeding.
“The driver of the vehicle was really nice. But he had a partner with him where he had a chip on his shoulder. This particular partner was really snippy and snappy with me and it was one of the only times that I felt like I was being provoked by a law enforcement officer,” Stephens said. “Is that because I was black? It could have been. But if I want to blame that situation on him having a chip on his shoulder because I am black I could do that every single day if I wanted.
“I am living here in a place where I am one of the only black people in the area,” he said. “Most places I go I’m the only black person and here I see the way people look at me every single day. I certainly could be the angry black guy and be pissed off about that, but I choose not to live that way.”
Most of the comments from the panelists and audience were prefaced with praise and admiration for the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and Park City Police Department. However, several pointed out that there was a perceived heavy-handed approach under former Sheriff Dave Edmunds.
“Was there a tone of heavy handedness or black-and-white prior to my administration? It’s hard to say because I like Dave and consider him a friend, but, yes, there was,” Martinez said. “I wanted to bring a community-centric approach to law enforcement and have a very holistic approach to problems in our community. With regards to race, I have been in the military and worked alongside people of all colors and I honestly don’t see race. But I think this is a community of classes.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility in the community to try and change that,” he said. “It’s my responsibility as the sheriff to provide training and sensitivity training so they have the resources they need to have a successful outcome.”
The tone of the discussion, attended by a mostly white audience, implied that “we don’t have a racial problem in this city.” Former federal Judge Sam Alba disagreed.
“I have found that fascinating. You have a Hispanic population that is 25 to 30 percent of your county and you brought up in the beginning that you may have a socio-economic issue and I think that is true,” Alba said.
Jane Patten, executive director of Peace House, said while it may not be an issue of race here, there is a large culture that is sometimes forgotten.
“Some don’t feel that they have the place to be able to integrate,” Patten said. “The Hispanic culture is rich and focuses on the family. Let’s not try and change them. Let’s try to understand that.”
Michelle Kersey, a Salt Lake area resident who grew up in Park City, said she appreciated the different viewpoints that were represented at the forum, but viewed the discussion as only a starting point for a much larger examination of the issues that minorities face.
“I’m glad because I feel like a lot of people learned something new today and saw things from a different point of view and I think it was really helpful for this community,” Kersey said.
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