Racial equity, police reform discussed in Virginia town hall

More than 1,000 people, including community and state leaders, police, activists and experts, joined a virtual town hall Thursday on racial equity and policing reform during Virginia’s first Racial Truth and Reconciliation Week.

The town hall was organized by the office of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who said the conversation is a way to understand the ways racial inequity has been built into existing systems, such as education, housing, finance and so many others, and how it can be rooted out.

Janice Underwood, Virginia’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, said structural racism is ingrained in all these systems. “It is endemic.”

Committees are already discussing what should be done to address the issues ahead of the special session of the Virginia General Assembly on Aug. 18.

Underwood said that smaller-scale committee discussions that will turn into actionable reform are important.

Northam said racial equity and police reform are not Republican or Democratic issues, but they are about making Virginians feel safe and respected.

Panelists in the town hall answered questions from those tuning in and gave their perspective on how different segments of the community can contribute and lend their voices to the conversations.

Donte McCutchen, pastor at the Love Cathedral Community Church in Richmond, talked about the church being an active translator of what is going on in the world for those active in faith and those who are not.

“For the Black community, church is a safe haven,” McCutchen said, adding that “a lot of trouble we’re seeing is from bad theology.”

University of Virginia student activist Zyahna Bryant talked about having a seat at the table when policies are being created. 

Deputy Secretary of the Commonwealth Traci J. DeShazor, who moderated the panel, described discussions as taking place in a room but oftentimes decisions are being made in an inner room. “Who’s part of the innermost decisions that are being made?”

Christine Payne shared her view of racial inequity from a health care perspective. She said that what is currently happening is a “collision of two pandemics” — the coronavirus and persistent, pervasive racism.

“We can’t achieve personal wellness, while our community continues to suffer,” Payne said.

Payne called for equitable distribution of resources and more funding for mental heath and schools, as well as closing the school-to-prison pipeline.

Secretary of Public Health and Homeland Security Brian Moran discussed how the state has reformed juvenile justice by putting money on resources instead of funding two prison-like juvenile facilities, Bon Air and the shuttered Beaumont juvenile correctional centers.

Moran said the facilities were “not working at all,” and four out of five kids either returned to the Department of Juvenile Justice or the Department of Corrections as adults.

Instead, Moran said they looked at the cause instead of the symptoms of behavior. “They got there because of a traumatic event” or abuse, he said. He said it’s vital to get them into treatment programs.

As of this week, the number of children at Bon Air is down to 146, Moran said.

Law enforcement leaders from across the state also spoke on how they are addressing racial inequity.

Norfolk Chief of Police Larry Boone discussed community engagement efforts his department has been doing, which includes a literacy program in schools and a clergy program, where church leaders can see what’s going on outside their places of worship from Friday night into Sunday.

Town of Herndon Police Chief Maggie DeBoard said the challenge for her Northern Virginia jurisdiction has been cultural, saying that from people, it’s a “cultural fear of police because of where they came from,” as well as the impact of the trauma of border crossing and language barriers.

DeBoard spoke about fostering and creating relationships with immigrant population, including making inroads with youths through Project Hope, a program where police and educators work together to build trust.

City of Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English said that it is a good idea to partner with mental health when responding to such calls. He that while there must be a way to pull back from mental health calls, police can’t eliminate their response because those situations are sometimes very dangerous.

Northam said some of the police reform priorities that will be addressed during the special session of the General Assembly include law enforcement training, best practices for civilian review boards, information sharing among police departments, expanding the criteria for dismissal/decertification and reporting police misconduct.

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