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By Steve Steiner
Executive Editor 

Justice and Equality Community Town Hall Covers Familiar Territory


Last updated 8/13/2020 at 7:54am

Although it got off to a slightly late start as technical difficulties were being ironed out, the virtual town hall that focused solely on race relations garnered a following of approximately 30 people, so stated Bartow Mayor Scott Sjoblom, who moderated the event hosted by Bartow City Commissioner Leo Longworth, in which all city commissioners participated. Also involved were interim Police Chief Bryan Dorman, CRA director Steven Cox, and special guest presenter, Dr. Kenneth Stephens, who opened up the town hall.

Stephens, who graduated Bartow High School in 1981, is a retired Army veteran. He also is associate pastor a Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church. Currently, he is a professor at Southeastern University in Lakeland.

"The first question I ask is, why are we here," said Stephens. A short while later he noted that the U.S. is currently at a season of change, and cited recent events, beginning with the murder of George Floyd and others, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement. He then rhetorically asked that in light of things nationwide, what was the mood and attitude locally. "What is the pulse in Bartow?"

Stephens also explained certain terms, beginning with the word "diversity," which he said is a measurement of numbers, but does not mean "inclusion." That word, inclusion, he continued, represents impact and culture, but is not access. He also pointed out that equality does not denote equity.

Longworth responded to Stephens question about Bartow.

"It's about the hard questions, how the black community is impacted," said Longworth. He said race relations in Bartow are good, but that improvement is needed. "This forum is to help do this."

Unlike many law enforcement departments throughout the U.S., in Bartow, its approach is markedly different said interim Police Chief Bryan Dorman. For starters, there is its policy and procedures that all officers are required to study and know, which is no easy task as it is approximately 1,400 pages.

Dorman, who has been with the Bartow Police Department 22 years, pointed out that its officers are prohibited from using chokeholds such as the one used that (has) killed Floyd and others. Also known as a lateral vascular neck restraint, it is not even taught in Bartow.

"Never have. Never will," said Dorman. He also pointed out that BPD officers have to use minimum force, as well as render aid immediately. There exists also a policy on biased-based policing. In it, Dorman stated there are two key words/phrases: shall, and strictly prohibited. "The Bartow Police Department has been doing this for decades."

Following Dorman's presentation, the mayor took a question from a viewer who expressed her fear about being pulled over for a traffic stop, and asked how can the police mitigate this concern. Dorman said that even he gets occasionally stopped and that despite being a police officer, also goes through the same concerns. In the next breath, though, Dorman said he hasn't any idea, nor could he, know what it is like for one who is black or other minority.

As for mitigating it in Bartow, Dorman expressed his belief that this is a personnel and not necessarily a policy issue when matters could go wrong. To counter that, he said, the BPD interacts with the community before such a situation arises. "If after, you're behind the curve."

Later in the session, a participant asked how can trust be built between the black community and police. There are three things that must be done, responded Dorman. It begins with servant leadership. That means doing things in the community outside one's role as an officer of the law.

"It's not enough to just be a cop," he said. Along the same lines, as point number two, police officers need to be in direct contact outside their purview as officers. Again, this is something outside their role as police. The third item was breaking any "code of silence." If an officer is guilty of wrongdoing, it must be reported and addressed.

Further questions regarding law enforcement included how the BPD reflected the community. City Manager George Long took that question. He pointed out that Bartow is a small community, and that it often serves as a training ground for those who seek to go on to greater things. It's also a situation of when vacancies do arise, which are not numerous. It is a challenge, he noted, attracting blacks and other minorities to apply to the police department.

"We do not see applications particularly from the African-American community," said Long. "We strive for that."

That contention was buttressed by Carver Young, one of those in the community participating. In his remarks he concluded that the black community has to step up.

Returning to the question over how to rebuild trust between the black and minority community and police, Stephens added to the conversation, commenting that he has had the "conversation" with his three sons, all who now are adults, plus the proviso to law enforcement when it has harmed the community.

"There has to be real accountability and real consequences," he said.

While most of the discussion concerned policing, another topic was addressed by CRA director Steven Cox. Over the past five years since he has been its director, the Community Redevelopment Agency has held focus groups and developed funding policies. As an example, he pointed out the west side of Bartow, which has been specifically targeted to "lift it up." The past two years, he said, have seen 13 homes built or under construction. As did Dorman, Cox also reiterated a key element necessary for progress to be made.

"Getting feedback is very important to us," Cox said.

Author Bio

Steve Steiner, Executive Editor

Steve came out of a two-year retirement to helm Following a career in journalism/advertising/public relations --- at one point being a partner in an advertising/PR agency --- he shifted professions and focused on food service and hospitality before returning to journalism. As a journalist, rose from reporter to sections editor to managing/executive editor with newspapers in North Carolina, Mississippi and Florida. He is enjoying restoring a quality news site for his adopted hometown. Send him your story ideas.


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