By John Grant
In the suburban communities to the 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 evolved from the Black Lives Matter protests and reality polarized competing law signs in the form of a community advocacy group focused on public policy issues.
The group is called 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 organization.
On Sunday June 6, CAARSEA celebrated its first anniversary at an outdoor picnic area part of the Greater Plymouth Community Center; the rally brought together 150 diverse citizens, Plymouth Chief John Myrsiades and six of his officers. The mind was open and friendly.
âCAARSEA has evolved as a result of George Floyd’s predicament,â said Board member Gail Plant. As an African American mother of three who lives in Plymouth Township, she recounts two personal experiences: one in which her husband was racially profiled by Plymouth cops outside his own home (this was before Myrsiades becomes a chef) and another where she intervened in an argument between a young black man and a grocery store manager who was about to call the cops.
âIt’s not that it can’t happen here,â she said. âOur intention is that this never happens here. We have had town halls with the chiefs of the townships of Plymouth and Whitemarsh. Each department is different. Every chef is different. The aim is to build a partnership so that we can ensure that there is some form of unity between the population and the police. “
CAARSEA started a year ago, on June 1, the day it hosted a Miles Park bluff vigil overlooking the corner of Germantown Pike and Joshua Road. It was right after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, and estimates put the diverse crowd at 300. Whitemarsh Police Chief Christopher Ward attended the vigil in plainclothes, as did several uniformed officers.
Ninety percent of CAARSEA’s members are women and its 12-member board are all women. In pandemic mode over the past year, the group has held several face-to-face 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 first anniversary rally, Chief Myrsiades listened with respect to an activist from the NAACP in Cheltenham advocating for the squeaky wheel approach at the supervisors’ meetings: âShow up, ask about the race and do not go away! Lisa Meiris told the rally. Local activist Mark Jones pointed to a uniformed Plymouth officer and said: “You should feel as safe with us as we should feel safe with you.”
âYou don’t have to agree with everything, but you have to listen,â Myrsiades said at the meeting. Previously, he said, âYou have to actively listen to what people are saying, because societies are constantly changing. If you stay the same, you lose ground.
CAARSEA seeks to take the initiative in ensuring that the dialogue between residents and the police remains open and forward-looking. An April 28 zoom meeting with Chief Ward of Whitemarsh provides one example.
CAARSEA members presented the 35-year veteran of the Whitemarsh Police Department with a number of concerns. Gail Plant spoke of the “need for transparency” and the fact that “black people do not look at the police the same way as whites”. As a suburban African-American mother of three, she said she was afraid of cops and said she often told her children, âYou have to be compliant. [with cops] because mom needs you to come home.
One of the main areas of concern at this meeting was the presence of the police in schools in the area. Whitemarsh supervisor Michael Drossner, the official liaison between Whitemarsh police and township residents, said of the police presence at the Colonial High School:
âIt’s a good thing the police are in the schools.
Sonia Cooper-Pinkey disagreed: Her experience was, according to meeting notes, that “different cultures experience discipline differently” and “black children can be disciplined harder.”
When asked about police officers who might be racist to some extent and one way or another, Drossner said such a police officer would be suspended or fired. Chief Ward’s response was more measured: âThey would judge the situation.
Lorrie Scott wanted to know “Who judges? There is no diversity within Whitemarsh Police.
Ten years ago, the department had a black officer; but he’s gone 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%; in 2020, it is reported at 3.1%.
Whitemarsh’s supervisors and police management have done a lot over the past 12 months to improve its codes of conduct and operational orders. In December 2020, the ministry hardened its Racial profiling and Use of force orders. And he created from whole fabric a Obligation to intervene command with the following language:
âIt is a legal and moral obligation for members of the township police service to intervene if they notice excessive use of force. ” Through intervene, the order means “verbally or physically”. Officers must complete an annual refresher course on this Obligation to intervene order. This would appear to be the direct result of the high-profile murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis; Floyd would be alive today (and Derik Chauvin wouldn’t be in jail) if his fellow officers had been encouraged to physically push Chauvin off Floyd’s neck.
Asked about the Fund the police Even in protest, Plant’s response was that groups like CAARSEA are useful in “making sense” of such simplistic and controversial feelings. For her, the issue is not to define anything; the problem is to finance the right things – like cops working in partnership with mental health specialists. âI’m very passionate about it,â she said.
Other issues CAARSEA plans to focus on include a focus on de-escalation training, hiring black cops, improving transparency with regular and published police reports and, such as mentioned two of the leaders, participating in what is called The service record, which prevents agents who have presented problems in one department from being hired by another.
In the colonial school district, the group plans to focus on whether black students are disciplined more severely than white students. Educational programs are planned, like the one done via zoom which dealt with race and suburban real estate appraisals.
CAARSEA’s main achievement is that it has established itself as a viable political tool for dialogue in the communities in the northwest of the city. The chiefs of the townships of Whitemarsh and Plymouth expressed their agreement with the chief of the borough of Conshohocken, George Metz, who said of his relationship with CAARSEA: âIt has been positive. ”
Lou Ann Merkle, CAARSEA member, said: âThe dialogue has been established and real change is happening. We need to get past the level of polarized road signs on the lawn. “
John Grant is a journalist living in Whitemarsh Township.