Citizen Police Advisory Committee holds first meeting

Mayor Grover Robinson’s Citizen Police Advisory Committee met Thursday, July 9. Here’s Jeremy’s article on the inaugural meeting.

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by Jeremy Morrison
It was a long time coming, just over a year, but the city of Pensacola recently convened its Citizen Police Advisory Committee for its inaugural meeting. The committee’s mission is to formulate recommendations aimed at improving the Pensacola Police Department and the department’s relationship with the community it serves.

“At the end of the day, this is your police department and this is your opportunity to be able to help them be better,” said Dr. Cedric Alexander, a retired law enforcement officer who is acting as the committee’s facilitator.

The Citizen Police Advisory Committee was born out of an incident last July during which a Black man was killed by a PPD detective. On July 5, Tymar Crawford was pulled over and subsequently shot seven times at close range by former Detective Daniel Siemen, who was later fired by the PPD for violating the department’s use of deadly force policy.

Following the killing of Crawford, community organization Pensacola Dream Defenders issued a list of demands to the city, among them was the creation of an oversight committee. Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson focused initially on addressing internal issues within the police department, and more recently shifted gears to creating the committee, which is taking an advisory, rather than oversight approach.

“We as an organization want to lean forward,” Mayor Robinson told committee members during the body’s July 9 launch. “We’re looking forward to the ideas that you come up with and discuss.”

During this initial conversation with committee members, Alexander noted his “affinity for good law enforcement, transparent law enforcement, and law enforcement and public safety that truly serves the community.”

“When I hear someone say, ‘I feel frightened by the police when I get pulled over,‘ — and that’s not unusual for a Black man in America, or a brown person, that’s a real fear — but it just hurts me when I hear anybody say that’s how they feel, because that’s not what policing is suppose to be,” Alexander said.

“That’s not what it ever should have been about, but it’s had a long history of questionable behaviors, a history that goes back to Jim Crow, it’s history that goes back to slavery, it’s stories that have been told. And until we understand history, there’s no way we can move forward and understand why people feel the way that they do.”

A Unique Time

Dr. Alexander recently retired from a storied career in law enforcement spanning four decades. In addition to holding various positions with agencies across the country, he cultivated a national reputation dealing with issues pertaining to community-police relations and also served on President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Upon retirement, Alexander returned home to Pensacola, where he attended Booker T. Washington High School. He was planning on taking it easy, but that hasn’t happened. In addition to being tapped by Gov. Ron DeSantis to fill a vacant seat on the Emerald Coast Utility Authority, Mayor Robinson asked him to lead the city’s efforts to reform its police department and foster a better relationship with the community.

“My intent when I came back, really, was not to do anything,” Alexander told members of the city’s advisory committee. “But that quickly changed.”

The retired law enforcement officer said he relished the opportunity provided by Pensacola to work with both the police and community members. He nodded toward the broader national conversation regarding systemic racism within law enforcement — a conversation that mirrors discussions sparked locally following Crawford’s death.

“It is a very unique time in this country, right? I think we all agree on that,” he said. “We’re at a place right now in the history of this nation — and particularly when we start talking about relationships between police and community, which has a long history to it — the only way that we’re going to move forward is that it’s going to take people like yourself who can understand and articulate and help us come to some resolve so we can look inside our police department, ask the tough questions, go through their policies and ask about things that we’re not sure about.”

Telling the committee that he felt the city already had a “good” police department, Alexander acknowledged that improvements should always be strived for and said that the city of Pensacola was ahead of other areas that had yet to establish something akin to the mayor’s police-advisory committee.

“We get to role model for the people in this city and across this country something that’s not happening in a lot of places, and that’s the beauty of it to me, that’s the part that I feel good about,” Alexander told committee members.

A Lot to Learn

The city’s Citizen Police Advisory Committee is comprised of 12 members selected by the mayor and the Pensacola City Council. It includes attorneys, pastors, community activists, a former city councilman and the president of the local NAACP chapter. Black and white, male and female, young and old.

The committee’s initial meeting was largely informational, with City Attorney Susan Woolf explaining the particulars surrounding participation on a municipal body, as well as laying out the committee’s scope and purpose.

“This committee can look at policy, this committee can look at procedures,” she said, explaining that the committee would not be dealing with specific incidents, officers or complaints, but rather broader issues, such as the PPD’s use of deadly force policy, or the department’s budgetary specifics.

Woolf said that the committee would also be receiving an education concerning law enforcement and the sphere in which it operated.

“There’s a lot to first learn about all of this. To understand what the policies are, to understand the procedures, to understand what the Florida law is,” the attorney said. “To get a basis, a foundation, before trying to figure out what, if anything, is broken, or what suggestions or recommendations do we have to make changes. And again, it’s going to be focused at a high level, it’s not going to be focused on an individual officer and saying, ‘we think this officer is good or bad or should be disciplined in a particular way.’ That’s not this committee.”

Alexander cautioned the committee that though they could make recommendations concerning potential changes, the final decision on any recommendations would fall to the appropriate party, such as the mayor, or the state attorney, or the state legislature.

“It doesn’t mean anything is going to change, but it does mean you have the opportunity to have some input and some influence,” he said.

Ready to Get to Work

While tempering expectations, Alexander also told committee members that impactful changes were possible. He pointed to his own work on President Obama’s task force and the fruit bore by the resulting recommendations.

“Body cameras that you see today, in your police department and across the country, came out of this recommendation, that’s where they come from, it was popularized based out of these recommendations back in 2015,” he said, holding up the document produced by the task force.

Alexander noted that today’s landscape — full of discontent and with a president fanning the flames of brute force — was in desperate need of solutions: “we have no roadmap as to how to get out of this place.”

As the committee goes about its work, learning about law enforcement protocols and procedures and formulating associated recommendations, Alexander said that they should consider who would be the most relevant source to address each issue that came across the table.

“We need to ask the right people the right questions. And it may not be the police department, it may be the state attorney, it could be a state legislator or a state senator,” he said.

Looking ahead to future meetings, Alexander encouraged members to reach out to people in their respective neighborhoods and communities and come up with a concise collection of issues considered important.

“Find three to six items that you think, or you may already know, that your constituents have an interest in, or they have a concern about,” he said. “Let’s look for a common theme among those ideas.”

An exact meeting schedule for the city’s citizen committee has yet to be settled upon. While city officials suggested it would be a monthly affair — with initial, as-of-yet unscheduled meetings to focus on educating members and selecting a chairman and co-chair, prior to any recommendations being made — it seems that the committee itself may have an appetite for a quicker pace.

“We probably want to move with a little bit more expediency than once a month,” suggested member Autumn Blackledge. “The vibe I’m getting is we’re ready to get to work.”