Anniston’s leaders want the city’s residents and police officers to talk with each other more.
During its Monday work session, the Anniston City Council discussed creating a citizen advisory committee for the Police Department. City leaders say the committee will help improve communication between residents and police, thereby avoiding many problems before they start.
City Manager Brian Johnson said the council will likely vote on creating the committee at its meeting Monday. The seven-member committee will consist of five residents appointed by the council. Chief Shane Denham will also appoint two officers.
Johnson said work started on creating the committee more than two months ago. The committee will have no authority and will operate solely in an advisory capacity. Also, it will be limited in scope to advising on general activities of the Police Department and not specific officers. It will also not be involved in the minutiae of policing, such as individual traffic tickets.
Mayor Vaughn Stewart, who first pushed for the committee, said its main function will be to create a stronger link of communication between residents and the police.
"Anytime you can increase public interaction with City Hall, be that with the council or the Police Department, you benefit," Stewart said. "It's just to have that dialogue with the community so before a crisis arises, people can be across a table instead of across from a protest line."
The city’s committee plan comes as residents of Ferguson, Mo., are clashing with police in protests there after a white officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager on Aug. 9. According to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, two thirds of Ferguson’s 21,205 residents are black.
Anniston has a similar makeup, with 23,067 residents, 54.3 percent of whom are black.
"This, to me, will help in the prevention of a Ferguson in Anniston," said Councilman Seyram Selase, who was not implying such an incident in Anniston was likely or imminent. "I'm very excited about this project."
Stewart said he thought more communication might have prevented the current issues in Ferguson.
"I think Ferguson is a perfect example of a community being completely disassembled and we can't allow that to happen," Stewart said. "We've got to open doors to the community and open a line of communication and not just toe the line but make steps of improvement."
In contrast to Anniston's population, most of its police officers are white. Of the 88 officers, about eight are minorities, Denham said.
Denham said thinks the majority of the population have no significant problems with police or mistrust their actions. Having more minority officers, however, could further improve relations between the department and residents, he said.
“Because a large portion of our city is black — it's just human nature to identify more with people who are similar to you and you can relate with,” Denham said.
Denham noted that under its civil service system, minorities who apply for jobs at the Police Department take precedence over whites when spots become available, if they pass the entry test and the background check.
“But we have very few that apply,” Denham said of minorities. “And a lot of applicants, not just minorities, just are not qualified.”
While Denham would support having more minorities in the department, in the meantime, he said increased communication between residents and officers through the committee could also be a benefit.
"Anytime you get people together to start communicating, it can't be a bad thing," Denham said. "It all depends on the makeup of who's appointed ... if there are some good appointments, it will be a very good organization."
David Baker, president of the Calhoun County chapter of the NAACP, said the citizen advisory committee is a good idea.
"I believe in sitting at the table to discuss things before they happen," Baker said. "It's not guaranteed they won't happen, but it's a good thing to see that we talk about things."
Baker said he has had a good relationship with the Police Department and has helped defuse grievances some residents have had with police in recent months through communication.
"Overall, I think our Police Department is doing somewhat of a fine job, as long as they keep their doors open and talk and listen," Baker said.
The city's committee is similar to a citizens' council Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh helped set up for his office last year. That organization, which meets quarterly, is composed of residents appointed by every governing body and law enforcement agency in the county, McVeigh said.
"It's a method for me to hear directly from every community about concerns they have," McVeigh said. "Our program has worked for us — it's helped me be more informed."
McVeigh said a similar program could help Anniston.
"I think the same thing could be accomplished with the Anniston Police Department," McVeigh said. "A lot of what comes out of it is creative ideas, things people would like us to do better ... it has not been a critical thing, it has helped us do better."