ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Sharhonda James is living in hell.
She has been plagued by daily nightmares since her 22-year-old son, Nevan Baker, was found hanging from a tree in an Orlando park last month.
Orlando police determined Baker had killed himself, a finding that has only fueled James’ agony because she doesn’t believe it. Neither did thousands of people who signed an online petition demanding the investigation be reopened and expanded. Nor did activists who led demonstrations calling for transparency and justice.
To many, the image of a young Black man hanging from an Orlando tree was too evocative of past racist lynchings to blindly trust the official explanation. To James, the horrific way police said her son committed suicide didn’t square with the seemingly happy young man she can see singing and rapping in cellphone videos he recorded in the weeks before he died.
“They didn’t do a fair investigation,” James said. “They didn’t handle my son’s situation in the proper way.”
Her doubt is not surprising.
It is indicative of a deep-seated ill that goes beyond personal grief or the actions of specific officers: Across the country, most Black communities have little faith in law enforcement.
The proof is found in anecdotes like James’, conclusions drawn by academic experts, elected officials, lawyers and police researchers and nearly three decades of polling. This year, data show Black adults reporting the lowest level of police confidence in a generation.
The distrust, which periodically erupts into public view after police killings of Black people, like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, can be traced back centuries, to slave patrols that served as one of the earliest forms of law enforcement in America.
“The relationship is poor,” said Jeremy Levitt, an attorney and president of the Stono Institute for Freedom, Justice and Security, a human rights institution and think tank. “... You have to look at the history of policing in this country and how police organizations were formed, who they sided with, how they policed African Americans.”
That history is what law enforcement agencies across Central Florida and the nation must contend with as they continue to police Black neighborhoods while facing calls for reform after this summer’s wave of protests against police brutality, said Jacinta Gau, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida.
“That knowledge and that collective history doesn’t just go away,” Gau said.
In the Baker case, the Orlando Police Department stood by its findings, noting that Baker had attempted suicide before and saying that evidence, including the state of his body and clothing and the direction of the rope marks around his neck, proved there was no foul play. OPD presented the evidence to James, before releasing it publicly.
The protests have since faded, but James, encouraged by her community sharing in her grief, still can’t take the police department at its word.
“The community, they’re the ones telling me don’t let this go,” she said. “I’m not letting it go. My son is in perfect peace right now. I’m the one still in this hell. ... But it’s not only a blow my family, it’s a blow to the world.”
DISTRUST HAS DEEP ROOTS
Since the 1970s, the pollster Gallup has measured confidence in American institutions like the presidency, organized religion and the public school system. In 1993, the year after unrest exploded in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four officers captured on video brutally beating Rodney King, Gallup started to collect data on policing.
In the most recent poll, only 19% of Black adults reported having “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in policing, compared to 56% of white adults. For both groups, these were the lowest rates of trust in Gallup’s polling history.
The poll was conducted between June 8 and July 24, amid nationwide protests in the name of Floyd, who was recorded pleading for air as a Minneapolis police officer held a knee to his neck for more than eight minutes.
Trust in law enforcement has always broken along racial lines, with white respondents routinely reporting levels of trust 20 to 30 percentage points higher than Black respondents.
The distrust has deep roots in American history, Levitt says, tracing back to the Fugitive Slave Act, which required the federal government to return to enslavement Black men and women believed to have escaped from the slaveholding South, and the Black Codes, a series of laws passed immediately after the end of the Civil War that limited African American freedoms.
“When the genesis of police agencies is our federal law enforcement officials and state and local law enforcement officials enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act and Black Codes, it’s not a really good way to begin a historical relationship,” he said.
In Central Florida, as in much of the South, authorities in the Jim Crow era routinely ignored anti-Black abuses — and sometimes perpetrated them.
A century ago, a white mob terrorized a Black community in Ocoee because a Black man had attempted to vote on Election Day, ending in the lynching of Julius “July” Perry. The mob was deputized by an Orange County deputy sheriff and led by a former Orlando police chief.
Three decades later, now-infamous Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall shot two Black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Groveland before they were set to be retried. One of the men was killed.
Violence by police has been met by repeated uprisings: In 1965, it happened in Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, after the arrest of Marquette Frye. In 1992, it was Los Angeles again, in response to Rodney King’s beating. In 1999, it was in New York, over the police killing of Amadou Diallo, a Black immigrant.
In 2014, Ferguson, Mo., exploded after a police officer killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. His death took Black Lives Matter from a social media hashtag created after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to a rallying cry that has defined the current civil rights movement.
This year, it was Floyd in Minneapolis. It was Taylor in Louisville. And here, protests were reinvigorated in August after an Orange County Sheriff’s Office deputy killed Salaythis Melvin.
“Given the nature of our historical relationship with police, when considering how they were formed and who and how they policed, why wouldn’t African American distrust law enforcement?” Levitt said.
‘DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE’
The implications of this history was the subject of a two-week training session recently conducted for members of the Orlando Police Department’s command staff and officers who work in Parramore, Washington Shores and other predominantly Black neighborhoods along Mercy Drive.
Randy Nelson, department chair and criminal justice professor at Bethune-Cookman University, led the training. Nelson went through the police academy and worked as an armed parole officer in the early 1990s.
“When I came out (of the academy), I was proud to have a badge,” Nelson said. “My mom reminded me that was the same badge used to hold them down when they were doing peaceful protests in Tallahassee during the Civil Rights times. ... That same badge was used as suppressive, as discriminatory.”
He realized “the badge means different things to different people” — historical context he says can help law enforcement professionals better understand Black communities they serve.
In addition to conducting Nelson’s training and an audit of agency policies, the Orlando Police Department also recently added new community outreach programs, including a youth outreach program coordinated by 14-year veteran Cpl. Joseph Lundy.
And at a press conference Monday, Chief Orlando Rolón, who declined to be interviewed for this story, announced the reformation of the agency’s defunct Neighborhood Patrol Unit, which is meant to improve communication between the department and the community. An earlier iteration of the program ended about a decade ago, when OPD reassigned its officers to manage a spike in crime.
In addition to steering people away from crime, Lundy says programs like these have the potential to change whole neighborhoods, reducing crime and encouraging community members to come forward with information about criminal activity.
“We have to take this approach about changing lives and changing the community from a holistic standpoint. We know that the things that we’re trying to do, it doesn’t take one,” he said. “... It does take a village to change our community, to change these young people to give these them opportunities to succeed.”
Lundy, who is Black, said he understands the uphill climb such efforts face. Like many Black parents across the country, he has had “the talk” with his three sons — coaching them on how to behave around police to avoid being subjected to violence.
So has David Thomas, a former Florida police officer and senior research fellow for the National Police Foundation. In 2017, Thomas wrote an essay for the foundation urging law enforcement agencies to start working toward better relationships in Black communities.
“Black families have the talk with the young Black males in the family because they’re afraid that their child is going to be stopped, or worse yet shot by law enforcement,” Thomas said. “... My parents had that discussion with me in the 60s. And when I talked to my dad, his father had that discussion. My dad was born in 1914 and his dad, my grandfather, had that discussion with him.”
VIOLENCE REVIVES DISTRUST
The day George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Feb. 26, 2012, Cecil Smith was working as deputy police chief in Elgin, Illinois, a city just northwest of Chicago.
Even 1,200 miles away, he could feel the outrage over the Sanford Police Department’s decision not to immediately arrest Zimmerman. So could “every police department around our country,” he said.
“Regardless of the thousand good things you do, the media tends to focus on that one bad incident... and lumps us into something that took place thousands of miles away, which is truly and completely unfair,” he said.
After then-Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee was fired for his handling of Trayvon’s killing, Smith was brought in to replace him and begin the work of rebuilding trust between Sanford police and the community.
Smith said the small number of protests in Sanford this summer, all of which remained peaceful, show the department is making progress.
But that doesn’t mean the work is done.
Andrea Smith Green had participated in police community outreach programs before. She wanted to make sure officers knew her 17-year-old son, Adrien Green, because he was about 6-foot-5 and had been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.
She worried that, if he encountered police, he could get hurt and thought, if law enforcement knew her family, they would be treated better.
“I didn’t want nobody to hurt him,” she said. “I didn’t want the police department to treat him like a man. ... I just didn’t want anyone to size him up.”
On May 5, Adrien was shot by a Sanford homeowner. Police didn’t arrest the man, explaining that evidence indicated the teenager was trying to break into a car on private property, which meant the killing was likely justified under Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
The killing sparked outrage and small protests. But the homeowner was never named publicly and was never arrested. In September, Seminole County prosecutors announced the man would not face charges.
Sanford activist Starrgina Lawrence said the case was another example of how police and also the State Attorney’s Office continue to fail the Black community and why, though she acknowledges Smith has made efforts to better the department, trust is still far off.
“If that had been a white 17-year-old and a Black man shot him... he’d be going to jail,” Lawrence said.
That argument — that a different standard of justice would be applied were the races of those involved reversed — was common among those who argued for Zimmerman’s arrest in 2012. After Zimmerman was acquitted the following year, his attorney, Mark O’Mara, argued the opposite: If Zimmerman was Black, he said, “he never would have been charged with a crime.”
O’Mara, who now represents Adrien’s family, says he is disappointed to see how little things have changed in the years since.
He says he was sure at the time, given the national attention the case received, that police reform would follow any verdict. Though that didn’t happen seven years ago, O’Mara says he thinks renewed conversations around policy changes and trust following Floyd’s death could be a first step toward meaningful change.
“I think a lot of our local law enforcement leaders have an awareness and I think they try pretty hard,” O’Mara said. “But the problem with it is multifaceted. ... The problem with it is that there are just some fundamental problems with law enforcement because there are fundamental problems with us.”