Concord City Council to host community discussions on racism

  • Concord City Hall

Monitor staff
Published: 6/23/2020 5:09:21 PM

The mayor and city councilors will host a series of community forums for people to share their experiences with racism, with the goal of identifying concrete steps the city must take to ensure equitable treatment of all residents.

Concord officials view the discussions in the coming months as one way they can act on their commitment to combat systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death nearly one month ago. The city is also moving forward with a public review of the police department’s use-of-force practices, which residents will be able to weigh in on at a virtual meeting next week.

But those action items are just the beginning, Mayor Jim Bouley told the City Council on Monday.

While councilors used the special meeting to draft, and ultimately pass, a public statement condemning Floyd’s death and the deaths of other Black Americans in police custody, they agreed that words can ring hollow if not backed by actions.

“At the end of the day we can put any words on a piece of paper that we wish but I think we’re going to be measured by what we do,” Bouley said.

Along with three city councilors, Bouley presented a statement he crafted that incorporated larger concepts and phrases from the other draft proposals. He said he intentionally didn’t advocate for a particular policy or change in policy because it would be short-sighted for city officials to do so before community discussions take place.

“I think we need to take the time to pause and do a whole lot of listening,” he said.

The council did not formally decide on next steps, but Bouley recommended several areas that deserve city officials’ attention moving forward.

“When you look around we are very white,” he said. “I think we need to talk about white privilege, understand our own belief systems, where we are and where we are coming from.”

He recommended that not just the council, but members of the city’s planning and zoning boards, school district representatives from Concord and Merrimack Valley and other policymakers come together to engage in self-reflection, to listen to local stories of racism and to learn from the experiences of the city’s police officers.

Several councilors said they support city-wide collaboration among elected officials, rather than each board working independently of one another. They said systemic racism can lead to discrimination in so many facets of life, including in housing, education and employment, and that a holistic approach to achieving racial justice is important.

In drafting their statement, councilors concurred that the city must acknowledge systemic racism both locally and in a national context. Many spoke about the importance of naming Floyd and referencing other Black Americans who died in police custody, but they shied away from using the words “police brutality” for fear that the language may be misinterpreted and inaccurately reflect upon the Concord Police Department.

“I do not, frankly, like any references to police brutality,” said Ward Seven Councilor Keith Nyhan. “I think even having that reference in our statement somehow passes that sentiment on that we feel that way about our police department, and I don’t think any of us mean that and I don’t think any of us feel that way and I don’t want our statement to reflect that.”

Nyhan, who with councilors Zandra Rice Hawkins and Jennifer Kretovic proposed separate draft statements, said the council’s remarks should show support for the police department and express an appreciation for the officers’ work. He said his proposal focused on cultural acceptance and solidarity among all people.

Kretovic, who represents Ward Three, echoed Nyhan’s sentiments. She said she is appreciative of the national movement calling for an end to police brutality, but said it’s critical that the council’s statement accurately reflect the situation in Concord. In illustrating her point, Kretovic referenced a recent right-to-know request from a news outlet seeking any complaints brought against the city’s police department alleging brutality and/or racism, in addition to any resulting settlements. Over a more than 10-year period, there were none, she said.

“That’s an important message for our community to know,” she said.

Gaps in social services to address homelessness, food insecurity and drug addiction too often mean that those problems fall to local police, said Fred Keach and Byron Champlin, who are at-large councilors. In future conversations, officials need to consider whether policy changes or a reallocation of resources could help address that all-to-familiar pattern, councilors said.

Champlin, like Nyhan, said he is generally not in favor of the council making public statements on national issues, but he said this time is different.

“We are really at a turning point where I think the groundswell of public outrage over the situation that has been recurring, not just once, not just twice, but countless times with people of color and law enforcement officers, has reached a point where the country is gaining a consensus that something really has to be done to address this,” Champlin said. “I think as white folks, I agree, that we can’t really see how the system has been stacked.”

Concord City Council’s full statement

“As Mayor and City Councilors, we condemn the senseless deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police officers who violated their oaths to protect and serve. We pledge to use our voices and our policies to combat systemic racism, to listen to the experiences of community members most impacted, and to reflect on our own roles in how to address these challenges as we shape our path forward together.

Every person in our community deserves to be able to count on fair and just treatment, especially within the leadership and institutions of our democracy. Our nation’s long and harmful history of systemic racism and institutionalized discrimination requires all of us to work harder to actively address and challenge racism and bias.

We also express our gratitude and appreciation of the Concord Police Department. Our community can be proud of its Police Department and its commitment to protect and serve the people of Concord.

But we can always do better. Over the coming months, the City plans to convene community discussions and identify actionable steps to ensure that we are delivering on our commitment to racial justice. We will be undertaking a public review of our policing and use of force practices so that community members may feel confident in our approach. It makes sense, in this moment, to identify areas for improvement throughout City government. The work ahead is both immediate and long-term, as well as expansive. We will create inclusive forums for all voices that move us forward together.”

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