To address concerns with policing and racism, Juneau starts by listening

More than 400 people attended a rally in support of black community members and black people nationwide on June 6, 2020, the 11th day of protests against police violence and systemic racism following the death of George Floyd. At several points protesters chanted “Juneau is not immune,” a reminder that residents of the capital city must also reckon with racism. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The Juneau Assembly held a listening session Wednesday to hear from citizens with concerns related to policing and racism in the capital city. 

The three-hour meeting included some sobering testimony from more than 40 community members who called in, many of them people of color who shared stories of racial profiling and discrimination. 

During the listening session, elected officials sat silently along with Juneau Police Department leadership, the school district superintendent and the school board president. 

Vanessa Ferrara testified that she had lived in Juneau only a few months when she had an experience involving police that left her shaken. 

While riding the bus to work one morning, Ferrara said multiple police officers suddenly showed up and pointed guns at the passengers, saying they were responding to a call about a person with a knife. 

“We were all terrified and I didn’t feel like we were being protected by the police,” Ferrara testified. “I’ve never been that scared in my life.”

She said she and the other passengers were startled and confused as a man who had been sitting quietly stood up and was immediately arrested by the officers.

“This is not why I’m paying taxes, to be terrified. I believe that they failed to protect us,” Ferrara said. 

Multiple people said they were disappointed by Police Chief Ed Mercer’s initial hesitation to immediately release the department’s use of force policy without first consulting a lawyer. 

The department released the policy three days later. It details procedures officers can use to subdue a suspect, including the use of deadly force. 

Nathan Block is a recent graduate of the University of Alaska Southeast. He said that he was sentenced to seven years in prison for an armed robbery he committed in Juneau in 2011. 

Block credits the officers who arrested him and staff at Lemon Creek Correctional Center with helping to turn his life around, and said he values their work. Still, he believes police forces around the country need to be demilitarized. 

“However, defunding them also means a lack in training funding and I believe we should consider reallocating JPD funds for buying military-like equipment so that they could conduct more training exercises, considering a lot of the situations that we are deeming unacceptable around the country,” Block said. 

Some speakers recounted instances of racial profiling by officers. Many voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the list of related demands issued by organizers of a recent rally in Juneau. 

Several people asked the Assembly to take action to directly address racism in the community through education and examining the racial makeup of city boards and commissions. 

In closing, Mayor Beth Weldon promised listeners that this was just the beginning. 

“This was a listening session and it was meant to be a starting point of a conversation,” Weldon said. “I’ve taken lots of notes and I’m sure my other assembly members have as well as the school district and the police department.”

Police department officials will speak to the Assembly again on Monday at a 6 p.m. committee of the whole meeting.

Listen to the full meeting testimony here

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