A Year Later, Has Lakeland Made Progress on Racial Justice?

One year ago, Lakeland learned it was far from immune to the racial tension simmering across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

On May 31, 2020, more than 1,000 took to Munn Park and downtown Lakeland to lend their voices to the outcry against the mistreatment of Floyd and of Blacks all over the country. A week later a march sponsored by Black Lives Matter Restoration Polk also drew more than 1,000 people downtown.

While the violence and riots that plagued other cities did not occur in Lakeland, the marches and protests served as a turning point for the community, sparking numerous forums and conversations about racial justice in Lakeland.

David Young More than 1,000 people participated in a peaceful march from Northwest Lakeland to Munn Park on March 7, 2020.

Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz points to a city initiative called Lift Lakeland, a series of “courageous conversations” and reforms to police policy and practice as the beginning stages of progress.

Black residents and leaders said they are pleased with the discussions that have taken place but wish that more concrete actions and policy changes occurred in the last 12 months.

“Is this going to happen overnight? No, but we’ve got to put a plan in place,” said Allyson “Al” Lewis, a Lakeland native who convened a series of racial justice forums after last spring’s protests.

Coney

“It’s great to have a conversation. Has anything changed? I’m going to go with no,” said Lewis, who is running in November’s election for the City Commission seat representing Southwest Lakeland.

Terry Coney, president of the Lakeland branch of the NAACP, said he feels similarly looking back on the last year. “In Lakeland, the mayor and the City Commission have made an effort. I still think there is more to be done. We’ve had good discussions, but none of it has really been acted on.”

Everyone agrees: Much work still lays ahead.

Let’s Talk

As emotions flared in late spring last year, leaders in Lakeland worked quickly to bring together interested residents to have several vital discussions and offer community input.

“Everyone wants to see change occur,” Mutz said. “Everyone is working really hard when the storm happens, but then the storm calms and everyone tends to go back to their routines. I’m very, very encouraged with the continuing momentum here in Lakeland.”

Mutz

Listening and identifying what needs to be fixed are the first steps, Mutz said. “We need to look at filling gaps, what isn’t being done and identify who needs to get involved. One concern that continued to pop up is, ‘Who’s doing it? Who wants to?’”

“It’s not going to be a panacea,” said Mutz said, who is helping to implement Lift Lakeland, a multiyear city of Lakeland program “to bridge gaps and develop harmonious relationships through people-centered solutions.”

Phase I of Lift Lakeland involved dialogues, brainstorming and identification. Six areas were pinpointed for improvement:

  • Education and careers
  • Mentoring and leadership
  • Law enforcement
  • Business growth and entrepreneurship
  • Community unity
  • Youth sports

In addition, the city joined the Courageous Community Conversations program and created a Community Involvement Volunteer Program. (Learn more and sign up.)

Improvement efforts require not only sweeping changes in the way major institutions operate, Mutz said, but also creation of institutions that do not yet exist.

“We have hard work to do,” Mutz said. “This is five, eight, 10 years of work that needs to be done. This work will be long-lasting, if done well.”

Walker

Philip Walker, a longtime Lakeland insurance company owner and currently the only Black city commissioner in Lakeland, said that he thinks a good foundation is beginning to be laid for meaningful change.

“I think we are headed in the right direction, but we probably need a little more of a push,” Walker said. “I would think we’d be further along than where we are.”

Walker said he is hopeful that more transformational conversations can be had in the business community and in all echelons of government regarding recruiting, mentoring and hiring.

“It is going to take all of us –- and I really mean all of us –- for this to become reality. We don’t see many people of color in what I call leadership positions. Your city or your community leadership needs to represent your community, and that includes top leadership in Lakeland or Polk. We’ve done well with gender representation in the last number of years; we don’t do well with racial representation of our community. I am in hope that a positive movement is afoot to make Lakeland look and become more in line with the people who work and live in our community.”

Some of the biggest challenges are overcoming the burden of history and shifting cultural attitudes.

“Like it or not, African-Americans are still suffering from what happened when they originally introduced Black people to the country through slavery,” said Mayor Mutz. “Until the Civil War, like cattle, like animals, they were exchanged for services. We don’t like to think like that because it was very ugly. And while there was a move toward equality, the cultural change didn’t follow. This is why there are more Blacks in prison, less Black professionals. We drove an entire culture to be more historically disenfranchised. Things have improved decade to decade but there are lags from its genesis.”

Chipping away at systemic racism will not happen without residents from all backgrounds and callings stepping forward and committing to make change, leaders said.

“To believe someone wants to invest in them with no other motive … skepticism takes time to overcome,” Mutz said. “People expect us to quit. People expect us to stop. We have an imperative. We need to be as drastic as necessary.”

Police reform

Garcia

Many discussions about race relations revolve around the criminal justice system. Black Americans are arrested and convicted of crimes at disproportionately higher rates than White Americans, according to a 2018 ABC News analysis of arrest data from 800 jurisdictions. According to a 2018 report from the Sentencing Project, Black men are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are 3.1 times as likely.

Lakeland Police Chief Ruben Garcia said he believes there is always room to learn and grow and that his Police Department has made tremendous strides, stretching prior to 2020. Those efforts include:

  • Neighborhood association meetings, where residents and police officers interact
  • Neighborhood Liaison Units that work proactively with residents to solve neighborhood issues
  • Police Athletic League, providing recreational activities to deter juvenile crime
  • Specially trained School Resource Officers
  • Construction of a state-of-the-art training facility, where de-escalation techniques and use-of-force training are taught
  • Quarterly neighborhood cleanups and outreach
  • Participation in public forums
  • Enhancement of its Duty to Report and Duty to Intervene policies
  • Participation in the national 8 Can’t Wait use-of-force program

Many point to body cameras as a solution that would go a long way in providing reassurance and accountability to everyone involved in a possible traffic violation.

The NAACP’s Coney noted that if there were not bystanders at many historical high-profile beatings of Blacks in the United States, justice and reform may not have been possible.

“Do you want your police to have a civilian camera be the only evidence of what happens at an incident? Again, it took something of that magnitude (George Floyd’s death) to get people’s attention. When events like that happen, when videos or a picture goes viral, that’s what it takes.”

Ongoing research suggests that body-worn police cameras may offer better transparency, improve law enforcement legitimacy, increase civility, provide quicker resolutions, serve as corroborating evidence, and offer opportunities for performance improvement training, according to a 2018 article published by the National Institute of Justice.

Chief Garcia said the Police Department and the city of Lakeland are currently researching the costs to outfit Lakeland police officers with body cameras and continues to talk with leaders about the pros and cons of adding these electronic devices.

Further discussion on the topic is expected by the Lakeland City Commission later this month. The Winter Haven City Commission unanimously voted on May 27 to approve body cameras for Winter Haven police officers by the end of 2021.

Garcia said race-relation issues are much bigger than a device like a body camera or a dashboard camera. Proper policies and training are just as — if not more — important, he said.

“You can’t fix a person problem with equipment. You need to fix the people involved,” Garcia said.

For instance, the Lakeland Police Department, Garcia said, is working hard to train police officers and motorists alike on how to safely and responsibly respond during a traffic stop.

“Traffic stops are dangerous business. We’ve been working with clergy and we held meetings over the summer throughout the city. It’s normal to be nervous during a traffic stop. The side of the road is not the time to litigate your case. We’re especially targeting that younger group (for education). Younger males and younger males of color are the ones who want to act up during a traffic stop. You don’t see older ladies acting out during traffic stops, do you?”

Garcia said he and his officers can always find ways to better serve and to observe situations from the perspective of everyone involved.

“I’m truthful with (my officers),” Garcia said. “We get it right 99 percent of the time. Those few times we get it wrong is what we look at. We need to be 100 percent. 1 percent is too much.”

Garcia said he also believes it is important to highlight the exceptional work that the community does.

“Very seldom do we celebrate what we do right. We need to highlight the positive. We are very fortunate to live where we live. The public supports the police in general. We’re not seeing a lot of the vile behavior you are seeing in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.”

Coney agreed that body cameras are only one change that could improve relations between the African-American community and law enforcement.

“Body cameras aren’t the end-all-be-all,” he says. “They should just be a tool. Sometimes verbiage makes a difference. Maybe call it ‘public safety’ rather than ‘law enforcement.’ It’s all about the perception that African-Americans and people of color are treated differently in the apprehension and approach process than Caucasians or whites.”

Commissioner Walker emphatically agreed.

“Unfortunately, racial profiling does exist here,” said Walker, who said he filed a report over a racial-profiling traffic stop he was involved in several years ago. “We need more conversations and just learning about different ethnicities. For instance, we tend to talk loud. That doesn’t mean we’re being rude. If you don’t know that, though, you’d think something was wrong.”

What’s Next?

While residents and leaders continue to engage in authentic conversations and examine how to reform the city’s infrastructure, what are the next steps to cultivating compassion and building a sense of community?

Lewis

Allyson Lewis said creating affordable housing and greater representation in business and government are two areas that need immediate attention.

“We have black and brown millennials who are really talented, but as minorities they are really missing out on opportunities. We need a business incubator like Catapult for small minority businesses,” Lewis said. (The Well, which is scheduled to open next year at 114 E. Parker St., intends to serve as an incubator focusing on minority businesses.)

She said she has grown frustrated with decisions being made for Black residents behind closed doors for too long.

“We all just want to be included. Sometimes it’s just a matter that we don’t know all the info because we’re not there. I’m tired of the lack of diversity and the lack of transparency.”

Lift Lakeland aims to provide those opportunities for leadership, business growth and entrepreneurship, said Mutz. The city of Lakeland is working on mentoring, collaborating with the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, career assessment programs, minority lending, internships and cultivating venture capitalists to invest in minority businesses.

“A lot of our young citizens are growing up with little role models or none,” said Mutz, himself a father and grandfather. “They are not motivated to achieve.”

Eradicating systemic racism in Lakeland will take immense work, leaders say, and will need the help of more than just Black activists.

“From what I’ve seen, white people want to treat white supremacy as a black issue rather than a white issue,” said Lewis. “We have to stop being scared. We have to let our guards down. We are afraid to tear down those walls. We are more divided here in Lakeland than you think we are. We have to co-exist with each other.”

Some barriers will be quick to fall, others will take time and effort, Garcia said.

“It took us a long time to get us into this … To properly fix it is going to take some time to get out of,” said Chief Garcia.

Hope, Walker said, is on the horizon.

“I’m encouraged. I trust God that we will come together to walk together.”

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