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'Moment after moment of hope': Friday meeting sets tone for change in Johnson City

David Floyd and Jonathan Roberts • Updated Jun 16, 2020 at 9:00 PM

In the grand scheme of things, Friday’s meeting at the Langston Centre between Johnson City leaders and community activists was just a small piece in a larger movement to bring change to Johnson City.

Few meetings, however, may be more important than the first.

“I think the most important thing to say about that meeting is that it was the first meeting,” said New Generation Freedom Fighters board member Andrew Cox, who said they were “handed moment after moment of hope that this city can be what we all dream it to be, which is a model city that can set the tone for the next generation of all Johnson City citizens, especially Black and people of color.”

Friday’s meeting was a good first step for activists and community leaders alike, though they recognize it will take a lot more than one meeting to make progress on any substantive changes.

“I think it was a really productive meeting,” said Johnson City Police Chief Karl Turner, one of the city officials present. “It was a good meeting, and I think that anytime you can sit down with someone and have that back-and-forth communication — the understanding is a big part of it.

“It’s us understanding their side, and them getting a look at some of the police side as well, and we hope to continue that to show them a little bit more of the police department and how it works, that’s one thing we’re looking forward to in the future,” Turner added.

Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock said the activists came to the meeting prepared, and participants spent the first 45 minutes getting to know each other.

As they delved into issues, Brock said they evaluated tenets of the “#8CantWait” initiative and compared each suggestion to city law enforcement policy. #8Can’tWait is a project led by the Campaign Zero organization, which pushes for “immediate change to police departments” and includes policies like requiring officers to de-escalate situations when possible, issue a warning before shooting and conduct comprehensive reporting of use of force.

Turner said the JCPD already has several of those policies in place, but that “some of them we have to more clearly define.”

“A lot of things they thought would be beneficial, we already do,” Turner said, adding that the department is “always looking at ways” to improve. “I think they were glad to see a lot of that was already in the policy.”

Cox said that they were “happy to hear” that the JCPD already has a majority of the 8CantWait policies in effect, and called the police department a “fantastic” organization.

“Every city needs to work on something, but the Johnson City Police Department already follows a lot of 8CantWait, and was very receptive to what comes next to enforce all of 8CantWait,” Cox said. “We didn’t walk into that room thinking the JCPD is some corrupt institution, that’s not what was in our heads — we know that Johnson City police works very hard to take care of the community and has for quite a long time.”

Brock said Turner is committed to looking more critically at the city’s training for officers, and said the group was interested in the city budget and how Johnson City funds education. She added that there was some confusion about whether Johnson City had purchased military equipment for the department, which Brock said was given several years ago to many cities. Johnson City was just one recipient.

“A big part of this is really to look at what we’re already doing and do some analysis on that,” Brock said. “Where we need to improve, and we certainly have a commitment as a city to examine ourselves.”

To her knowledge, Brock said there weren’t specific requests from the New Generation Freedom Fighters that specifically affected the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget, which commissioners will consider on final reading this Thursday, noting that “as we have our next level of discussions we’ll see if anything comes out.”

On the topic of “defunding the police,” a course of action advocated by activists across the U.S. in the wake of Floyd’s death, Brock said officials need to fund the police more so they can handle community policing and have the resources to appropriately deal with mental health issues among the citizens they encounter.

“Our police officers have to do everything, so if they get called to a mental health case it’s like, ‘Where do you take them?’ It’s either the ER or jail. One of the two,” Brock said.

The next meeting between the city and the New Generation Freedom Fighters is scheduled for June 23.

“The movements start in the street, but they end in policies — they end in procedures,” said Cox.

“To know that there are people sitting at that table that can use their pen to go along with our voice means that change will almost certainly take place. We have more conversations to have, but we all left that room thinking this is progress and the time for change is now.”