About 65 people showed up Thursday for a discrimination forum held by the U.S. Department of Justice to assess racial tensions in Columbus and help bring about reconciliation.
The forum, held at Columbus Public Library, was organized by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It started with a one-hour closed session so people would feel comfortable coming forward.
Suzanne Buchanan, a conciliation specialist with the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, told the audience she was not in town as an advocate for any particular organization. She described her role as a “neutral third party” trying to help the community and public officials come together to address the issues.
“We don’t probe. We don’t investigate. We don’t assign blame,” she told the audience. “We rely on you to be the eyes and ears in Columbus, and the solutions need to come from you.”
In the open session, several residents came forward to report cases of racial profiling, employment discrimination and general racial prejudice at the Columbus Consolidated Government. Most of the complaints involved the Columbus Police and Muscogee County Sheriff’s departments.
Pam Brown, who ran unsuccessfully against Sheriff John Darr in 2012, told the group that she saw people being discriminated against while working as a lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Office. Now that she’s retired from the department and working as a counselor for the Harris County Prison, she feels free to disclose the information.
“I’ve seen a black employee treated bad,” she said. “Black employee involved in the same incident as a white employee, black employee gets demoted, and white employee gets promoted.”
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who didn’t attend the meeting, said elected and city officials were asked not to attend so people would not feel inhibited.
“But I don’t want our absence to be interpreted as a lack of concern,” she said, “because we have met with the conciliator from the Justice Department and certainly have been speaking directly with the NAACP helping to facilitate open dialogue.”
Tomlinson said residents who have grievances can file formal complaints with the city’s Internal Affairs Department. They also can voice their concerns through the Public Safety Advisory Commission and at “Let’s Talk” forums that she holds quarterly.
She said problems may exist within the Consolidated Government, but she doesn’t believe discrimination is rampant.
“Have there been individual instances where policy was not followed? I’m sure ‘yes’ would be the answer to that,” she said. “But I think what you have to say is: If there’s ever a breach of protocol or policy, if there’s ever an act of unfairness, or even illegality, does the city have a process upon which they act upon and seek justice? And the answer to that is ‘yes.’”
At the forum, 76-year-old Ruth Paris said she stumbled on a pot hole on a city street near Columbus Recorder’s Court in December 2012. An ambulance took her to the emergency room where she stayed for 24 hours. Two days later, she called risk management to file an accident report.
Paris, who suffered from a broken finger and busted disc, said the city employee asked why she was calling and told her that the city wouldn’t do anything to help her. Paris said she asked could she talk to the mayor, and the woman said: “No ma’am.” She asked then, “who could I talk to?” And the woman told her: “Nobody ma’am. You can’t talk to nobody in Muscogee County.”
“I was just crying, really,” Paris said. “I was in pain. But the way she was talking to me, it was worse. I even lost weight. I felt like killing myself after that, talking to me inhumane.”
Paris said she wrote the mayor, City Manager Isaiah Hugley, the NAACP and Gov. Nathan Deal about the incident. The only one she heard from was the Governor. She said he told her it was outside of his jurisdiction, but she should pursue the case.
“Muscogee County, I haven’t heard from them, they haven’t responded at all,” she said. “And I voted a lot of them in there.”
Tomlinson said she doesn’t recall Paris’ case, but the city records all correspondence to the mayor and city manager, and she will check on the status.
“We, of course, strive to treat people as respectful and courteous as possible with prompt response,” she said. “And if we’ve fallen short of that mark then certainly we’ll take steps to correct it.”
Arnold Farley, a retired battalion chief with the Columbus Fire & EMS, said his son was mistreated by Columbus police two years ago while pulling up to his driveway. His son had his 3-year-old boy in the back of the car when a police car pulled up behind him, Farley said. A police officer drew his weapon and ordered him to get out. His son tried to ask what was wrong, but police wouldn’t let him speak.
“Out of the crowd we heard my grandson say ‘I want my father. I want my father,’” Farley said. “They had left the little kid, after drawing down on him, with a stranger. We had never seen this person.”
Farley said his son was arrested and later charged with not wearing a seat belt and having a blown tag light. He said the family has complained but “the Columbus Police Department has done nothing whatsoever.”