ITHACA, N.Y. – Surrounded by the smell of grilling hamburgers and the chance to eat her fill of free ice cream, a black girl about 5-years-old with colorful beads in her hair, said that when she grows up she wants to be a police officer.
Then she met Investigator Christine Barksdale — a black woman with long black dreadlocks who has been a negotiator with the Ithaca Police Department for years – and lit up.
It was the success story of the event Saturday as far as building relationships between officers and the public, said Nia Nunn, Interim Executive Director of the Southside Community Center.
“We all respond to positive Black images,” she said.
The second annual community police barbecue saw more than twice the number of attendees this year than at the event last fall, with hundreds of people turning out for the event.
Police officers got their face painted with kids, children asked for officers to sign miniature police cars as if they were celebrities and adults pulled IPD leaders aside for conversations.
Police Chief John Barber has said that the barbecue is meant to bring the community and officers together to “break bread” and create a better, safer community for everyone.
And the effort is more than needed.
While IPD and city officials have made conscious points to interact with the public through events — such the community barbecue, coffee with the chief and the Police Explorer Program, among others — the department took a verbal beating during the Black Lives Matter protest that happened less than two weeks ago.
The march and rally were sparked as a result of the fatal shooting of two black men — Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana — at the hands of police the same week. During the protest, organizers and speakers of the local chapter of BLM called for people arming themselves in the event police go to their homes and the defunding of the IPD with hopes of exploring alternate methods of community policing instead.
The same day as the pre-planned rally, five police officers were killed by a sniper in Dallas, Texas. And the day after the Ithaca barbecue, three police officers were murdered in Baton Rouge.
So do events like the community barbecue — where everybody was all smiles, joking with officers and slurping down ice cream together — matter enough to make a difference?
“I think a lot of people want it to make a difference,” Nunn said. “I respect and appreciate the desires for engaging in courageous conversations.”
She said she recognizes herself and Barber using the same kind of language when talking about improving police relations.
“Courageous conversations” is the the phrase she says they both use when addressing major issues people of color face in disproportionately higher numbers than white people: the school to prison pipeline, the number of incarcerated people of color, the number of black men killed by police each year.
The Washington Post published a year-long study about fatal police shootings in 2015 where they stated:
“Although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police this year, The Post’s database shows. In the majority of cases in which police shot and killed a person who had attacked someone with a weapon or brandished a gun, the person who was shot was white. But a hugely disproportionate number — 3 in 5 — of those killed after exhibiting less threatening behavior were black or Hispanic.”
Nunn has publicly spoken amendmently against police brutality and officers’ power to end a life without always facing the same repercussions as a member of the public would for killing somebody.
She says there is an inherent amount of racism people have — whether they are conscious of it or not — that reflexively determines people’s behaviors. It goes as far back to when black people were considered three-fifths of a human being.
Saying that the United States has a black president, having surface-level training about discrimination at work places — these things are not enough to squash the historical mindset of racism, Nunn said.
“It’s not about being nice to people of color,” she said. “These are not ‘I’m not racist’ points.”
Nunn teaches her sons lessons that people of color have to make a point to say to their children: keep all 10 fingers visible at all times when in front of officers; don’t make sudden movements; comply with officers’ demands no matter how wrong or humiliating it might feel.
She said she would rather pick her sons up at any police precinct than identify their body in a morgue, something that she knows is more likely for her than others because of her sons’ skin color.
But everything Nunn knows about racism and its apparent connection to police brutality is countered by the fact that she also grew up in Ithaca and knows a lot of the officers at IPD.
In high school, Nunn said she was in the “Wizard of Oz” play with officer Kevin Slattery, who she said did a wonderful rendition of the Tin Man. She remembers officer Kyle Paolangeli back from when they both when to the Greater Ithaca Activities Center growing up.
She says she knows they’re good guys and knows that there are other people at IPD who are well intentioned and working hard to keep people safe. Bust she questions how exactly can the act of policing — something that has so much power and force behind it — be safer.
There is a lot of hope and space left for “courageous conversations” that Nunn said could make a difference, at least to some people.
In the mean time, Nunn said she is happy to host the barbecue at Southside and welcomes the police to keep reaching out to the public.