Diverse perspectives mark gun violence panel at Central Reform Congregation

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A community-wide panel discussion on gun violence at Central Reform Congregation last week examined the complexities of crime, firearms and relations between police and citizenry in African-American communities.

“I thought it was a beginning, a segue into doing more work in regards to gun violence in our community and also being sensitive to what’s going on with our law enforcement,” Rev. Vickie Caldwell told the Jewish Light afterward. “I was very pleased.”

Caldwell, of Faith Communities Against Gun Violence, helped organize the interfaith event, which featured a mostly African-American eight-member panel answering questions with her acting as moderator. Running nearly three hours, the event concluded with questions and statements by the audience of about 100 people to the assembled group of clergy, law enforcement and others.

Caldwell specifically criticized a recently vetoed measure in Missouri that would have loosened gun laws here and created a “stand your ground” provision in state law. Legislators are set to take up the bill again in an attempt to override Governor Jay Nixon’s veto. 

Though the topic was gun violence, the gathering touched on a wide range of issues. Centered on a verse from Exodus prohibiting murder, it focused heavily at times on law enforcement in the wake of controversial shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. 


“What police officers fear most when we encounter people is deadly hands,” said Lt. Col. Ronnie Robinson, commander of the bureau of community affairs for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. “We pay attention to the hands.”

Robinson said he teaches those who encounter police to always display their hands to allay an officer’s possible fear of a weapon. He advised that individuals should never make any aggressive moves but if they feel they are mistreated by an officer, they should note the name and badge number to address the issue later. He said that he’s even had problems with how his own children have been treated during traffic stops.

“We have to identify those officers and if they are not fit to be policemen, we have to get rid of those officers,” he said. 

Rev. Glenn Rogers of Royal Ministry in O’Fallon, Ill., acknowledged the need for officer safety noting that they often need to make split-second decisions while in fear for their life.

“If they are already nervous and you do something to aggravate it, a cop can’t run and call 911,” he said. “Everything stops with him.”

But Rev. Kenneth McKoy, of Progressive AME Zion Church on the city’s north side, said that he feels black officers are rarely involved in shootings of black men.

“I don’t panic when a black officer pulls me over. Maybe I should but I tend not to,” said McKoy, who helped found “NightLIFE,” a group of ministers who walk city streets after dark to build community. “But when I’m pulled over by a white officer, if you could hook me up to something and check my vitals, you would find them off the charts. There is a real problem in the police department and I believe the citizenry are suffering as a result of that.”

He said it was good for people to become educated on the best ways to interact with police but that violent, abusive or racist officers were still a problem.

Nation of Islam Minister Donald Muhammad of Mosque #28 said that he felt the problem of police officers killing black people has been happening for years but only recently brought to light. 

 “It is just now that you have the internet and smartphones that you can videotape and put on social media and this is why it is being brought out now,” he added.

Rogers said that the heart of the problem was disparate treatment based on race and demographics.

“There is no consequence for killing black people. That’s at the core of it,” he said. “They won’t do that in the Jewish community. A cop is not subject to make that foolish mistake in the Jewish community. He’s going to make absolutely sure his life is on the line because he knows if he messes up, his career is over.”

Still, he said that all problems couldn’t be put on police but that neighborhoods needed to help improve, a theme with which others on the panel also agreed.

“Let’s remember that the police are there to enforce laws and not there to be your psychologists and your babysitters,” he said.

Pierre Blaine, author of “Movement: Race, Power & Culture in America,” said that it was important to bear in mind that most police are not the problem and that the community wasn’t trying to micromanage law enforcement. He said that police associations should work harder to weed out bad officers.

“What we are really talking about are police officers who have used force unjustifiably,” said Blaine, vice president of the Kingsway East Conservation Association. “If a person is unarmed, then what is the justification for killing that person? That is really what the issue is.

“A policeman in the line of duty may have to kill people but they are not sanctioned to murder people,” he added. “That is the distinction.”

 Robinson said that accountability starts at the top and that chiefs should work hard to remove bad officers. Otherwise, a police force can lose credibility in a community.

“If we have to sacrifice those bad apples to get respect back, we’ve got to do that no matter who they are,” he said.

He said that he trains officers to expect — and tolerate — some degree of disrespect on the street without losing their temper.

 “The most powerful thing we have as policemen is not our gun belt,” he added. “It is our ability to communicate.”