I chose the forum because I thought it might be livelier.
There was an air of excitement before it began, but it started evaporating after District 1 Augusta Commissioner Matt Aitken, who called the meeting, said a few words, the mayor spoke and moderator Rick Toole went over the ground rules with the panelists.
People started drifting out about the time Toole started talking about goals and objectives. I turned to the man sitting behind me and said, “Whadda you think?” and he said, “It’s like watching paint dry.”
Well, it was, until Sheriff Ronnie Strength, the most respected and loved man in Richmond County in my opinion, started firing away at the media for blowing the shootings out of proportion and making people think downtown is dangerous.
“The media has caused this perception of downtown,” he said.
The crowd must have agreed because he received two standing ovations.
Before the July 6 shootings, there had been only nine criminal calls downtown on First Fridays all year, he said.
“Things happen, and you can’t control them. If you can, by God, come down and help us,” Strength said.
OVERCOMING CHALLENGES: On Thursday, the Augusta branch of the NAACP held a forum for sheriff candidates at New Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church. Each candidate introduced himself and said what he’d do to make First Friday safe, after which candidate Lt. Robbie Silas left to attend a fundraiser.
In his introduction, Democratic candidate Lt. Richard Roundtree said, “We are less than 13 days away from changing the face of Augusta,” which I interpreted to mean the election of black Democratic challengers over white incumbents in the July 31 primary. Hattie Holmes-Sullivan is challenging incumbent Democrat Elaine Johnson, and Juvenile Court Judge Willie Saunders is challenging Augusta Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Carlisle Overstreet.
Saunders, who won the first round in a challenge to his eligibility by Augusta lawyer Jack Long because of delinquent taxes, faces another challenge. Long’s attorney, former Gov. Roy Barnes, filed a motion Friday in the office of state administrative hearings, asking the judge to rule on the 2011 tax issue Saunders didn’t have in his Chapter 13 payment plan and whether Saunders had to pay his back taxes in full under his plan.
The judge previously didn’t rule on those points. The secretary of state also has to address the issues.
UNLOADING ON A LOADED QUESTION: While written questions from the audience at the NAACP forum were being sorted, moderator Mallory Millender, a retired Paine College professor, asked this question:
“Historically, there has been tension between the black community and law enforcement. Clint Bryant, in a piece in The Chronicle a couple of days ago, said that if the victims of First Friday had been white, there would be a stop to that. I’ve long heard there’s been a difference in the application of law enforcement east of the 15th Street versus west of 15th Street. We’ve all seen what is happening to Rodney King, Alfaigo Davis in Augusta, Cherry Tree Crossing. In every instance, a black person has been brutalized, and in almost every instance the brutalizer has been white, and they’ve been exonerated. My question is, will this change if you’re sheriff, and what will you do to make it change?”
Republican Michael Godowns said he’d promote black officers to higher ranks and make the department “blended.”
An “us against them mentality” has developed in the department, said Lt. John Ivey, a Democrat.
“And we must change that,” he said. “And I believe the only way you’re going to change that is to change from the top. You’ve got to have somebody with your interest at heart.”
Democratic candidate Capt. Scott Peebles said officers have to understand their job is to serve the community and not oversee it, which would take constant bombardment with that message.
“I think we have to show we want to be blended,” he said. “We have 23 percent African-American representation in the sheriff’s department and 60 percent in the community. Right now, we are not representative of the community we serve.”
Roundtree said black leaders are fighting that fight now. “And I’m ready to take up this fight,” he said.
“You’ve got to ask yourself why 60 percent of the population is African-American, and the department makes up 23 percent,” he said. “Why didn’t you do something 15 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago?”
Republican Freddie Sanders bristled, saying he was proud of the sheriff’s office and didn’t accept Millender’s premise that anybody would have been treated any different on Broad Street if they’d been white.
“I represented one of the deputies in Cherry Tree Crossing,” he said. “And shame on every one of these men who would get up here and not take up for the department they work for and say what they think you want to hear so they can get your vote.”
Not one man on the podium said one good word about the sheriff’s office under Strength, he said.
“And everybody wanted him to be re-elected. And the job he did. I will not condone anybody being mistreated because of their color,” Sanders said. “If they do, I will fire them on the spot in front of you. But how shameful it is for somebody to suggest the sheriff’s department in this town would turn their back on a crime because the victims are black. I don’t accept it. I’m insulted by it. And I am shocked that anybody on this podium would not take up for it. So if that makes you don’t vote for me, don’t vote for me.”
In rebuttal, Ivey said, “I‘m just up there telling the truth about what’s happening. It’s hard because I’m a member of this same department. We’re reactive instead of proactive. We’ve got to change the mentality of those guys.”
HAVE YOU STOPPED BEATING YOUR WIFE? Another question was, “How would you go about changing how your officers act in the ‘hood,’ i.e. the black neighborhood? As far as being nasty to the so-called ‘hood,’ your policemen are very, very nasty.”
Godowns said the department needs major changes from the top to the bottom.
Ivey said officers need sensitivity training and a change in mindset.
Peebles said officers should be servants and that mentality has to “bleed down” to every officer.
So if that’s going to be the goal now, why hadn’t it already filtered down, Roundtree asked – before answering himself.
“The mentality comes from the top. Those officers go out, and they represent the attitude of the people at the top – their leaders,” he said.
Sanders took great exception to the question and the term “the hood.”
“They’re neighborhoods and communities,” he said. “And I am not going to accept that question and acknowledge that they’re nasty to people in ‘the ‘hood.’ But if they are, they will not be on my department.”