The future of policing was up for public discussion on July 16 in a virtual forum held by No Place For Hate. Implicit bias, officer training, defunding police departments and other department issues were topics addressed in the Zoom event aired on Falmouth Community Television.
The virtual forum came after weeks of protests against racial inequality and calls for defunding police departments spurred by the deaths of George Floyd and other Blacks.
“We don’t have a lot of the problems here that you find in other parts of the country,” Falmouth Police Chief Edward A. Dunne said. “We have 57 educated, well-trained officers in our police department. We work really hard from the day they are hired and throughout their career with ongoing training to make sure they are professional and treat people professionally.”
He said the department was recently retrained on fair and impartial policing and implicit bias, and is trained yearly on the department’s use-of-force policy.
“This isn’t just for issues of race, but for homeless people and people dealing with mental health problems,” the chief said.
Marie Younger Blackburn, chief executive officer of Driven: Cape Cod’s Conference for Women, moderated the discussion. Panelists included Megan English Braga, chairwoman of the Falmouth Select Board; Onjale Scott Price, chief operating officer of Mizar Imaging; William H. Hough, publisher of the Enterprise; and the Reverend Will H. Mebane Jr., rector at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church.
One question posed to all panelists was about the magnitude of race issues in Falmouth and in the police department.
Mr. Mebane and his wife moved to Falmouth two years ago, and he said they have felt welcomed in the community. However, there have been a few instances when he was profiled, he said. He shared an incident when the Falmouth Fire Rescue Department responded to an alarm at the church and one of the firefighters assumed he was the caretaker.
“I have been made aware that I am Black and have been profiled, not by the police department, but I am always concerned if it’s a possibility it may happen,” he said.
In her role as a defense attorney, Ms. Braga said it is her job to scrutinize the police reports generated by the chief’s department. “I look for places my clients’ constitutional rights may not have been upheld, and I can say I don’t see a systemic pattern of arrests,” she said. She was careful to note she cannot speak for other police interactions, such as traffic stops, that do not make it to the court system.
The chief said the number of calls involving racism is generally low in Falmouth, but he has seen an uptick recently. He referred to four incidences in the last month: Black Lives Matter signs were stolen off private property; the racial slur “nigger” was carved into an attendant booth at Old Silver Beach; a swastika was recently discovered under a bridge near Chapoquoit Beach; and a resident found white supremacist and hate flyers in his mailbox.
“We can go for years without anything like this occurring. My sense is it is being spurred by national events,” Chief Dunne said.
When the topic of defunding the police department was raised, the chief said 70 percent of the calls the police receive are mental health or substance abuse related. He helped organize two partnerships, between the department and Gosnold Treatment Center and the department and Falmouth Human Services, to get people help. His goal is to hire a clinician and create a community action team that would bring in community leaders to work proactively on problem areas.
Mr. Mebane said, “How would you feel about shifting some of your budget so, instead of hiring more police officers, you hire people that could address the social needs of the community? This is right in line with what people are calling for when they talk about defunding the police.”
The chief responded by saying calls for service can involve violent people.
“Clinicians can’t go it alone, and that is why this partnership we have now works. We’ve gotten many people services they need,” he said.
When asked what he is doing to bring into the department more people of color, the chief acknowledged the difficulty in doing so and noted that there is one minority on the force, an all-time low.
“I have reached out to the Cape Verdean Club, the Portuguese-American Society, the Wampanoag Tribe and the state Division of Unemployment to cast the net to get diversity, and I will continue to do so,” he said.
However, he said he is struggling to hire officers in general, with fewer people taking the civil service test, and he believes a career with a municipal salary cannot compete with the private sector.
“I am in a crisis to hire new officers,” he said.
Ms. Braga said diversity in the workforce is low throughout all of Falmouth, offering lack of affordable housing, interactions with police, the vibe of the town and how it is perceived as possible reasons.
“Are we welcoming? We have not made much progress on this front and we need to make it a priority,” she said. “We have a Brazilian population, Cape Verdean, Jamaican, but it tends to not be recognized. We have more work to do.”