MARIETTA — Leaders of the local NAACP and the county’s public safety department agree that Cobb is not immune to the sort of conflict happening in Ferguson, Mo.
That’s why Sam Heaton, the county’s public safety director, said he called a meeting with prominent members of the black community Monday.
“Unfortunately, I think it could happen here, and I think it could happen anywhere in America,” Heaton said.
Heaton said he is aware of the tension felt by blacks, who make up 27 percent of the county’s population, according to the 2011 census.
“I want everyone to know I was not asked to do this. This is something I wanted to do,” Heaton said to about 20 black leaders in Cobb who attended the meeting held at the local NAACP branch on Roswell Street in Marietta.
The meeting took place the same day Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was buried in Ferguson, 15 days after he was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer, setting off riots that pitted citizens against police in the town.
Deane Bonner, president of the Cobb NAACP, said she has a good relationship with local police, but it doesn’t mean she thinks police have a good relationship with all black residents.
“We’re sitting on a hot bed of what could happen here in Cobb County,” Bonner said.
County Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who represents south Cobb, attended the meeting. Cupid said she fears for her children because of the reputation of black men in Cobb.
“I do recognize that there is a continuing latent pressure among our community,” Cupid said. “Being a wife and a mother of black males, there is a challenging perspective when it comes to black males and public safety.”
Cobb Police Chief John Houser said he is attempting to create a better relationship between minorities and police by asking police to participate in events such as the “Safety Blitz,” which is a cookout held twice a year in a Cobb neighborhood that allows police to interact with residents in a friendly way.
Houser said building relationships with residents is the only way to break down the barriers between police and minorities.
“I can tell you, in my early years, we never did things like that — going out into the community and talking to people,” Houser said.
Bonner said starting a conversation in the community helps, but she strongly believes the police force isn’t fair to blacks because there isn’t enough minority representation on the force.
“The cops are white,” Bonner said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re sending cops into our neighborhoods. They need to look like us.”
Houser said the police force, made up of 702 people, is 80 percent white, compared to the county’s population, which is 65 percent white, according to the 2011 census.
Houser said the Cobb Police Department can’t offer what others do, such as a take-home car and higher pay.
“We’ve tried to recruit a diverse police force … but we compete with all the other cities and counties for the best candidates,” Houser said. “I’ll admit, we’ve got to do a better job of recruiting.”
Heaton agreed with Houser, saying another reason Cobb’s law enforcement isn’t more diverse is Cobb has a reputation for not promoting minority employees at the same rate as other counties.
“Trying to get African-American firefighters in here from Atlanta is almost impossible, and they say it’s because of our reputation that we don’t promote,” Heaton said.
Houser said the department may be more competitive if the Cobb Board of Commissioners passes the county’s fiscal 2015 budget tonight, a budget that includes $12 million to purchase new cars to expand a take-home car program and $3.1 million in pay incentives, such as a program to pay officers with advanced degrees higher salaries.
Arshod Varner, who mentors teens with the company Training Champions, based in Cobb, said the community is divided because police and residents won’t get along in Cobb until they can understand each other.
“The kids are afraid of the cops, and the cops are afraid of the kids because neither of them know each other,” Varner said. “It’s the ignorance and the fear of not knowing. It’s not a black thing or a white thing.”
Local pastor Benjamin Lockhart Jr., of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Marietta, claims the divide between black residents and the police exists because officers don’t treat blacks the same as whites in social settings while they’re on duty.
“I’ve met too many police officers that have got an attitude. They don’t want to talk to you,” Lockhart said. “Ain’t going to take but a minute to be kind. Then, I cannot be afraid of them.”
Bonner agreed with Lockhart, saying police often avoid eye contact with black people but start conversations with white people. Bonner said if cops were friendly toward children it would solve the communication problem because the community would learn from a young age that police are there to help.
“Let those kids see a friendly cop down there, and this cop is going to look like my dad,” Bonner said.
Houser said police don’t treat black people differently from other residents.
“I can’t say that any one race is stopped (by police) more than any other,” Houser said. “We are not going to profile anyone. Blacks are stopped, and so are whites and Hispanics and so on. They’re certainly not stopped for that reason.”
Houser said the department doesn’t keep a record of how often one race is stopped by police compared to another.
The police chief said he would work with the black community to meet in the future to hear their concerns. He also asked the group of concerned community members to have confidence in his department.
“When you have over 600 plus officers, you’re going to make a mistake, and if we make a mistake, we’re not going to hide from it. We’re going to face it upfront,” Houser said. “I’ve even arrested our own before.”