How Elmira's Black community, police work to combat, condemn racism

After George Floyd's death, Elmira police were quick to condemn the actions, but Black community wants to highlight systemic racism.

Jeff Murray
Elmira Star-Gazette
  • Protests and sometimes violence swept the country after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
  • Protests in Elmira-area communities have been peaceful.
  • Local law enforcement agencies say they don't treat Black suspects differently than whites.
  • Local Black leaders say it's most important to keep lines of communication open.

As a Black woman, Georgia Verdier of Corning, said she has been followed by police officers in the past, seemingly without cause.

But Verdier said she also had positive interactions with law enforcement officers.

Verdier, longtime president of the Elmira-Corning Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is always concerned about the relationship between the police and the Black community.

That focus became even sharper after waves of social unrest and racial tension swept across the country in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in police custody in Minneapolis.

Verdier said both sides can learn valuable lessons from the current climate.

An Elmira police officer looks on as hundreds of people rally in the city June 5 in the wake of the death of an unarmed black man in police custody in Minneapolis.

"Let us talk. We need to get to know one another," Verdier said. "We need to give each other feedback. Message sent is not always message received. One thing we are talking about is how to minimize negative behavior."

A watershed moment

The death of George Floyd while he was pinned to the ground by a police officer — all caught on video — triggered protests across the country, including the Southern Tier.

Demonstrations in Elmira area communities have remained peaceful, but many larger cities across the country have been plagued by violence in the wake of Floyd's death.

While some protesters have pointed to that very public spectacle as proof that all police officers are racist, local law enforcement officials say they were as shocked and dismayed as everyone else who saw the video evidence.

"My initial reaction to viewing the video was 'Why?'" said Chemung County Sheriff Bill Schrom. "I certainly understand the necessity of controlling the suspect when taking them into custody. However, once that suspect is secured in handcuffs there is no longer any justification for additional force. The fact that the officer remained kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck was inexcusable and incomprehensible."  

The reaction to Floyd's death was also totally understandable, said Black businesswoman Carol Cain, who owns Steuben County-based Brave World Media.

Cain doesn't condone the rioting and looting that has accompanied demonstrations in many cities, and says it distracts from the message that institutional reforms are needed.

At the same time, Cain said she understands the release of frustration that has been building for a long time.

"It's unrealistic to believe any significant change will be smooth and clean cut," Cain said. "There has to be some some sort of understanding. If you go into communities and murder people and they protest peacefully and are met with violence by the police, how are people supposed to continue to contain their passion and anger and frustration?"

Conflicting messages

A common theme surfacing at protests is that Black people are often targeted unfairly.

Cain recalls an instance when she and her husband were traveling home from the New York City area when they were pulled over by a state trooper.

The trooper asked Cain for her driver's license and other information even though her husband, who is white, was driving, she said.

But it is not policy for police officers to treat Black people or minorities differently than they would anyone who is white, and such behavior would not be sanctioned, according to Elmira Police Chief Joseph Kane.

"I have not been aware of any officers under my command treating Black suspects differently. That would not be tolerated," Kane said. "If a community member feels they have been treated differently, it should be brought to the attention of the police administration and will be investigated. 

"As a patrol officer in the past, I have made arrests where the defendant claimed I only arrested them because they were Black, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the arrest," he said. "However, we have to take those accusations seriously and ensure that we treat everyone equally while we enforce the laws."

Nevertheless, statistics maintained by New York state appear to bear out disparities in arrest numbers when they are broken down by race.

For example, white people make up 86% of the population of Chemung County while Black people represent 6%.

But in 2018, the most recent year numbers are available, Black suspects accounted for 25% of all arrests and 39% of felony arrests, while white suspects made up 70% of all arrests and 56% of felony arrests, according to statistics compiled by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

To see the complete county-by-county breakdown of arrests by race, go to criminaljustice.ny.gov/crimnet/ojsa/stats.htm and click on "Comparison of Population to Arrests and Prison Sentences by Race/Ethnicity, County, and Region."

Healing long festering wounds

Just as police officers have to make sure they don't have any preconceived notions about Black or other minority suspects, the reverse is also true, said Elmira Heights Police Chief Rick Churches.

It seems no matter what police officers do or say, they will be unfairly vilified by some, Churches said.

There are definitely some police officers who don't belong in the ranks, he said, but he also believes the vast majority of officers care deeply about their communities and everyone in them.

"To say this is a difficult job in these times is an understatement," Churches said. "I have heard the phrase, 'What if all cops just didn't show up to work?' The response to that is, it will never happen because we know there are people that need us. There will be a car accident, a domestic, an assault, a drowning, a suicidal person, etc. and we will answer the call. It leaves a pit in your stomach to hear what is being said about police officers though."

Protesters gathered outside the Elmira Police Department May 29, 2020 to protest police brutality and structural racism after the death of George Floyd.

Churches and other local law enforcement officials say they welcome dialog on how to improve and maintain strong relations with the Black community. 

Keeping those lines of communication open is exactly what both sides need to do to better understand where the other is coming from, said David Rowe, a Black man who owns Greenstar Services, a cleaning and janitorial company based in Painted Post.

"I say by and large most (police officers) are decent people who enforce the laws and protect the public," Rowe said. "The real core problem with being Black is you can't hide it. It's a visual and it affects people. Some people have been taught not to like people because they're different.

"I think what really needs to happen is (police departments) need to screen guys better. Or if they find out after, then you need to not protect them. Discipline or get rid of them," he said. "I don't agree with getting rid of police departments. Then you would have chaos. It would be a mess."

Systemic racism has been around a long time, in law enforcement and elsewhere in society, Verdier said.

But this time, circumstances feel different, she added.

Verdier believes the momentum started by the reaction to George Floyd's death will lead to some positive and lasting changes.

"We will pull together people in the community who can devise a plan of action. We'll bring in people from all aspects of life. We want to address this holistically," Verdier said.

"I believe we will have a new norm. Systemic racism will be addressed more under this movement than before," she said. "I believe 2020 will be different from what we've had in the past. Hopefully it will be a better future."

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