Supported by a local community organization, police departments open their doors to a Racial Justice Liaison
Photo caption: On August 4, Vance Beach spoke with audiences at Britt Fest before the Keb Mo concert.
Last summer, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer hit Americans with seismic power. The publicity of gruesome footage taken at the scene in Minneapolis were shocking, and jolted communities across the nation to respond—and with urgent demands for changes. But, in spite of the mutual anger and sadness, there was not a shared idea for a best road forward; the calls for reform manifested in almost as many different forms as there are cities and towns in America.
To the north, Portland notoriously garnered national attention for street fights between protesters and police, with calls for defunding police departments. A year later, that mistrust and frustration has taken more specific form with continued, palatable tensions and with alarming attrition rates from the police department.
But in southern Oregon the reaction was less about breaking down the system, and instead about working to redirect and reimagine what the “system” could be—and the result has been something unique and potentially a model for other communities across the country. A year later, that vision for new protocols has taken shape with a new position of Racial Justice Liaison serving police departments throughout Jackson County.
In large part that initiative has been successful—and with somewhat alarming speed considering the historic distrust by communities of color towards police and the stubbornness of bureaucracies—because an organization for Black residents already had been formed and had a head start towards amplifying community voices. Organized in 2019, Building Equality in Southern Oregon (B.A.S.E.) had already been working to find pathways towards equality and equity when George Floyd was murdered. Because B.A.S.E. was already organized, with more than 500 residents signed up as members, they were able to mobilize quickly and to present a specific initiative.
George Floyd’s murder “got the wheels turning,” said Vance Beach, B.A.S.E.’s founder and organizer. In a recent interview with the Messenger, Beach went on to explain that he understands the motivation and purpose for protest, but “sometimes it’s a matter of conversations.”
Those conversations took the shape of requests by B.A.S.E. to police departments throughout the region; specifically, B.A.S.E. requested a partnership of sorts, that they would hire a Racial Justice Liaison and that the police departments would work with them to create more open communications. In some ways, the Racial Justice Liaison is like the role of a diplomat representing the needs and wants for one community to a somewhat foreign, even hostile, entity; it gives community members a trusted go-between and a watchdog with some bite.
With relative ease, B.A.S.E. found commitments from Jackson County Sheriff, and police chiefs with Ashland, Central Point and Medford. “It was fairly linear,” said Beach, referring to the straightforward progress that B.A.S.E. made. “They listened,” said Beach. “They responded.”
Part of the credit for the quick movement is that the other side of the equation already was working on similar initiatives to provide more access: Ashland Police Department was considering hiring more officers of color, and for the past 19 years Medford Police Department has had a Cultural Outreach Coordinator.
But Beach pointed out, “an officer at one department won’t cut it.” The new position of Racial Justice Liaison is different in two primary regards: First, the position is independent from police departments, but with community trust yet insider access; and, second, the position recognizes the need for blanket coverage throughout the region as opposed to a patchwork of initiatives from individual police departments.
Earlier this summer, B.A.S.E. hired an interim Racial Justice Liaison, Dr. Flora White-Cooper, who is a private practice psychologist with a background working with law enforcement and within correction facilities. Already, she told the Messenger, she has fielded several calls and cases. “We’ve been working to make changes,” Dr. White-Cooper said. “It is already happening,” she added. “I’m optimistic about that.”
For more information about B.A.S.E. and their Racial Justice Liaison initiative, check out BaseOregon.org.