Police brutality, currently a hot topic around the country, was the subject of a panel Friday at the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials’ convention in Fort Lauderdale.
Fatal shootings of unarmed men by police have sparked sometimes violent protests and prompted demands by the public for federal reviews of agencies and deadly force.
Locally, the Broward state attorney has charged four police officers in cases related to excessive force, 18 other cops are under investigation for similar offenses and 11 police-involved shootings, some dating from 2011, will go before a grand jury, the office said Friday.
“You can pay now [with police training] or you can pay later [in lawsuits],” said Judge Denise Langford Morris, of Oakland, Calif., who has presided over cases involving police misconduct.
She advised the 60 municipal decision-makers gathered in a ballroom at the Westin Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort to make sure police officers are well trained and to hire leaders whose ethnic backgrounds reflect their cities’ residents.
“You’ve got to ensure that your community trusts your police department and has faith they will do their jobs,” she said.
She was joined by Fort Lauderdale Police Major Gregory A. Salters, Miramar Assistant Police Chief Dexter M. Williams and Hattiesburg, Miss., City Council member Deborah Delgado.
The panel agreed that police body camera videos and citizens’ cellphone recordings of encounters with cops will increase the spotlight on law enforcement. About 10 officials in the crowd said their cities have or were getting body cams for officers.
Williams called the body cameras “the sexy thing that’s going on right now.”
He said police unions will resist putting cameras on officers, a technology he said can require a million-dollar investment and recurring costs.
“If you have a community that has no police brutality issues, I’m coming to you as elected officials to ask why my taxes are going up,” Williams said. “If you have a community already engaged, such as the Sanfords and Fergusons…those are communities that are an easy fix [and cameras will be worn by officers].”
The police leaders described their agencies’ efforts to build relationships with residents, beginning with youth. Miramar has a four-year program that enables high school graduates to get jobs as 911 operators and also runs a citizens’ police academy for residents to understand police work, Williams said.
Like many agencies, Fort Lauderdale hosts the national Police Explorers program that exposes high school students to law enforcement careers. It also lets mentors of young black males meet at headquarters.
“It gives [the kids] a different perspective of the police department,” Salters said.
He recommended cities have more minority officers train their peers and encourage young African-Americans to become officers.
“The more of us that are in there that can relate to us, then it makes it better for us,” Salters said.
Audience members expressed a desire that police departments not investigate their own when it comes to excessive force cases.
As for Fort Lauderdale’s firing in March of three cops in connection with a racist video and texts and the resignation of a fourth officer, “We are all in this together, we’re one community,” Salters said. “We’re trying to move forward.”
Delgado was troubled by officers who curse or mimic attitudes of those they arrest, behavior that she said prompts a certain response. She said “a really great chief” reminded her that officers “weren’t always dealing with Sunday school kids.”
“If good officers go to work everyday to protect our communities, they are getting a bad deal because of the actions of other officers,” Delgado said. “The actions of bad officers are really costing us a lot of money.”
Ltrischitta@Tribune.com, 954-356-4233 or Twitter @LindaTrischitta