Changing the Narrative forum held to listen to minority voices

CHEYENNE — In 2016, when he was looking for a house to buy, Enrico D. Meadows-Fernandez was called in as a suspicious person as he was walking around a neighborhood.

Meadows-Fernandez is a Black man, and inquired of the officer how he could walk less suspiciously in the future. He received no response.

His story, along with the voices of many other minorities in the Cheyenne community, were heard Saturday morning at a forum at Element Church titled "Changing the Narrative: Listening to Marginalized Voices."

The forum was sponsored by the Cheyenne NAACP, United Christian Ministers Alliance and Feminists Leaders for Reproductive Justice. This forum was held a few weeks after the Cheyenne Police Department hosted a community conversation in the wake of nationwide protests due to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Some community members present felt they weren't listened to and didn't have the opportunity to voice their concerns at that conversation.

About 75 people gathered at Element Church to take part in the discussion, where panel members Mayor Marian Orr, CPD Chief Brian Kozak, Cheyenne Municipal Court Judge Ronn Jeffery and Wyoming Highway Patrol Col. Kebin Haller answered crowd questions.

Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove was also invited to participate on the panel, but didn't respond to requests. She was present in the audience, however.

The forum was also livestreamed on the Cheyenne NAACP Facebook page and the Feminist Leaders for Reproductive Justice Facebook page, where people viewing from home were able to comment with their questions. Which is where Meadows-Fernandez shared his story.

"Is this common practice, and, if not, what will be done to eliminate the use of the police being dispatched because a white person is uncomfortable, as we see this common theme throughout America," Meadows-Fernandez said. "Minorities getting the police called on them for performing daily tasks. Living, essentially."

Kozak said Meadows-Fernandez is absolutely right, and police do get calls like those from the dispatch center. He also mentioned that Laramie County recently hired a new dispatch director for the Laramie County Combined Communications Center.

Previously, the policy was to have police respond to every single call they received, and officers had to screen those calls.

Kozak said his eventual goal is to have the dispatch center screen calls; this way, if a person calls 911 to report a suspicious person, and the only information the caller has is that the person is a minority, dispatch can tell them they're not going to send an officer.

Forum moderators lead the event by asking panelists how they can detect racism within policy and policing.

Haller said he believes it starts in the hiring process. He said potential troopers get background investigations, psychological evaluations, social media checks and more.

One of the best indicators to see if a potential trooper checks out is to visit their home and neighborhood to see who they really are. Kozak echoed Haller's remarks and said before any potential CPD officer is hired, an investigator will travel to where they used to work and speak with officers who interacted with them that aren't necessarily listed as a reference.

Community members also brought up drug interdiction that the Highway Patrol does, along with hot spot policing and money forfeitures by police.

With drug interdiction, a trooper will often pull someone over for a traffic violation, but then do what Haller said is to "look beyond the stop." Haller said the troopers are then asked to look and see if the person may be involved in any other type of criminal activity.

But the community member stated that oftentimes, some of these traffic stops aren't justified. For instance, they stated sometimes people are pulled over for swerving within their lane - but then when dash cam footage is checked, there is no swerving present.

Haller said it's up to the "checks and balances" in place to help prevent this, such as criminal defense attorneys.

"If we believe that we have an individual or a trooper that is performing a lot of traffic stops resulting in an inordinate amount of searches, and nothing is being found, we are going to take a look at that," Haller said. "Because that is not OK, particularly if there is any discrimination, prejudice or bias that is occurring as a result of those."

Last year, there were 109,000 traffic stops conducted by troopers, and 43,000 tickets were written as a result of those stops, Haller said. Five percent of those tickets were written to Latinos, and 3% of those tickets were written to Black people.

In short, Haller said it's possible for a scenario such as that to occur. This is why the patrol makes records of trooper stops, use of force and more to look for behavioral patterns from troopers. This way, hopefully, if a trooper is displaying a racist, biased or just plain problematic pattern, the patrol can catch it.

Kozak said the police department doesn't really do much drug interdiction, because the department doesn't have a lot of time for proactive policing, and officers are usually jumping from call to call. But Kozak did say that if someone is being pulled over for swerving within their lane, that violation should be clearly present on the dash cam footage.

A community member asked Kozak if CPD honing in on specific areas for policing, such as the south side, is discriminatory.

"So, if you're honing in on a specific area doesn't automatically mean that you're going to be able to uncover more crime in that area," the community member said. "So if you're honing in on the south side, wouldn't it be that you're going to have more crime, and that's discriminatory just based on the fact that you're utilizing that system to show where there's more crime?"

Kozak said in a way the community member is correct, and CPD has been focusing on crimes such as vehicle burglaries, but they've been primarily occurring in the northeast and north part of the city.

The community member followed up by asking when Latino and Black-sounding names will stop appearing so frequently in the police blotters. Kozak said the arrest demographics in Cheyenne are consistent with the overall population demographics. He also told people to check out the police department's annual report on their website.

Many more community members brought up questions about hate crimes and hate crime legislations, some of the issues with using statistics in policing and other important topics.

As the forum was ending, Cheyenne NAACP President Stephen Latham said there are more forums planned for the future. He said there will probably be another forum that is a continuation of this topic, as well as some on education, health care and more.