A suburban activist group builds dialogue with the police

By John Grant
Posted 7/2/21

In the suburban communities northwest of the city — Whitemarsh and Plymouth Townships and Conshohocken Borough, all part of the Colonial School District — a dialogue between citizens and …

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A suburban activist group builds dialogue with the police

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In the suburban communities northwest of the city — Whitemarsh and Plymouth Townships and Conshohocken Borough, all part of the Colonial School District — a dialogue between citizens and the police has evolved out of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the polarized reality of competing law signs in the form of a community advocacy group focused on issues of public policy.

The group calls itself The Colonial Area Anti-Racism and Social Equity Alliance (CAARSEA) and claims 1,000 diverse members on its Facebook page. It is applying to become a 501(c)4 non-profit.

On Sunday, June 6, CAARSEA celebrated its one-year anniversary at an outside picnic area that’s part of the Greater Plymouth Community Center; the gathering was attended by 150 diverse citizens, Plymouth Chief John Myrsiades and six of his officers. The spirit was open and friendly.

“CAARSEA evolved as a result of the George Floyd situation,” said board member Gail Plant. As an African American mother of three who lives in Plymouth Township, she tells of two personal experiences: One in which her husband was racially profiled by Plymouth cops in front of his own house (this was before Myrsiades became chief) and another where she intervened in a dispute between a young black man and a grocery store manager who was about to call the cops.

“It’s not that it can’t happen here,” she said. “Our intent is that it never happens here. We’ve had town halls with the chiefs from Plymouth and Whitemarsh Townships. Each department is different. Each chief is different. The goal is to build a partnership so that we can assure there is some form of unity between the people and the police.”

CAARSEA began a year ago, on June 1, the day it pulled together a vigil on the Miles Park bluff overlooking the corner of Germantown Pike and Joshua Road. This was just after the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis, and estimates put the diverse crowd at 300 people. Whitemarsh Police Chief Christopher Ward attended the vigil in civilian clothes, as did several officers in uniform.

Ninety percent of CAARSEA members are women and its 12-member board are all women. In pandemic mode during the past year, the group has arranged several in-person and zoom meetings with Chiefs Ward and Myrsiades. Two CAARSEA board members — Gail Plant and Jamina Clay-Dingle — are running for seats on the Colonial School Board.

At the one-year anniversary gathering, Chief Myrsiades listened respectfully as an NAACP activist from Cheltenham made a strong case for the squeaky wheel approach to supervisor meetings: “Show up, ask the race question and don’t go away!” Lisa Meiris told the gathering. Local activist Mark Jones pointed to a Plymouth officer in uniform and said: “You should feel as safe with us as we should feel safe with you.”

“You don’t have to agree with everything, but you have to listen,” Myrsiades said at the gathering. Earlier he’d said: “You need to actively hear what people say, since societies are constantly changing. If you stay the same, you’re losing ground.”

CAARSEA looks to take the lead in making sure the dialog between residents and the police stays open and is future oriented. An April 28 zoom meeting with Whitemarsh Chief Ward provides an example.

CAARSEA members presented the 35-year veteran of the Whitemarsh Police Department with a number of concerns. Gail Plant told of “the need for transparency” and the fact “black people don’t look at the police the same way white people do.” As an African American suburban mother of three, she said she has a fear of cops and said she has often told her kids: “You need to be compliant [with cops] because Mom needs you to come home.”

A chief area of concern at that meeting was police presence in area schools. Whitemarsh Supervisor Michael Drossner, the official liaison between Whitemarsh Police and township residents, said of police presence at Colonial High School:

“It’s a good thing the police are in the schools.

Sonia Cooper-Pinkey disagreed: her experience was, according to the meeting notes, that “different cultures experience discipline differently” and “black children can be disciplined more harshly.”

Asked about police officers who might exhibit racism to some degree and in some manner, Drossner said such an officer would be suspended or terminated. Chief Ward’s response was more measured: “They would judge the situation.”

Lorrie Scott wanted to know “Who’s judging? There’s no diversity on the Whitemarsh Police force.”

Ten years ago, the department did have a black officer; but he left and the department has been all white ever since. In the 2000 census, the African American population of Whitemarsh was 2.2 percent; in 2010, it was 2.4 percent; in 2020, it’s reported at 3.1 percent.

Whitemarsh supervisors and the police leadership have done a lot during the past 12 months to improve its codes of conduct and operational orders. In December 2020, the department stiffened its Racial Profiling and Use Of Force orders. And it created out of whole cloth a Duty To Intervene order with the following language:

“It is a legal and moral obligation for members of the Township Police Department to intervene if they observe excessive force being utilized.” By intervene, the order means “verbally or physically.” Officers must take an annual refresher course on this Duty To Intervene order. This would seem a direct result of the high-profile George Floyd murder in Minneapolis; Floyd would be alive today (and Derik Chauvin would not be in jail) if fellow officers had been encouraged to physically shove Chauvin off Floyd’s neck.

When asked about the Defund The Police protest meme, Plant’s response was that groups like CAARSEA are useful in “making sense” of such simplistic and controversial sentiments. For her, the issue is not to de-fund anything; the issue is funding the right things — like cops working in partnership with mental health specialists. “I’m very passionate about that,” she said.

Other issues CAARSEA plans to focus on include emphasizing de-escalation training, hiring black cops, improving transparency with regular, publicly published police reports, and as was mentioned by two of the chiefs, participation in what’s called The Service Record Book, which prevents officers who have exhibited problems in one department from being hired by another.

In the Colonial school district, the group plans to focus on the question of whether black students are handed out harsher disciplines than white students. Educational programs are planned, such as one done via zoom that discussed race and suburban real estate valuations.

CAARSEA’s main accomplishment is that it has established itself as a viable political tool for dialogue in the communities northwest of the city. The chiefs from Whitemarsh and Plymouth Townships expressed agreement with Conshohocken Borough Chief George Metz, who said of his relationship with CAARSEA: “It’s been positive.”  

CAARSEA member Lou Ann Merkle said: “Dialogue has been established, and real change is happening. We need to get past the level of polarized lawn signs.”

John Grant is a journalist living in Whitemarsh Township.  

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