The first surprise, evident at the outset, was the fact that the room was almost filled to capacity, with many of those in attendance there to speak for the first time at a city council meeting. Before the night was over, nearly two dozen people did speak, and, almost to a person, they spoke to the same issue - police violence against members of the community, and in particular against members of communities of color.
By the end of the evening, there was another surprise - the members of the city council, if they were to be believed, have a majority who intend to institute a Civilian Police Complaint Review Board as a partial solution to the problem, and they intend to set it up in the very near future.
City residents who spoke about the catalyst for this evening of surprises – that is, the unleashing of a police attack dog on two young women who were involved in a minor altercation – were unanimous in their opinion that the use of force was disproportionate and that, unfortunately, the misuse of force by police was too common an occurrence in the city.
While Chief Eric Paolilli sat quietly before the council, his record as chief was detailed by a number of city residents as a period when city police have been allowed to run amok. In particular, the deaths of several young men - either at the direct hands of police or while in police custody during Paolilli’s term - were memorialized for the council’s benefit. The father of one young man - Omari Shakur, whose son Antonio Bryant was shot and killed on October 30, 2006 - recalled the fact that the Chief was responsible for the death of a man in a traffic incident while still a patrolman and said that the subsequent elevation of Paolilli to his current position should thus have never happened. Susan Cobbs, the mother of Nathaniel Cobbs, who died in police custody last summer after being beaten, tasered and attacked by a police dog, first demanded answers from the council and then, when her remarks were interrupted by Mayor Valentine, broke down into tears. She left the microphone - and then the meeting - sobbing. Nathaniel’s step-father, George McNeil, followed her out. McNeil promised the council that "this is not over, it is definitely NOT over."
Meanwhile, former Democratic mayoral candidate Lillie Howard handed out a flyer which dealt with the historical significance of police dog attacks on African-Americans, and she spoke to the fact that it is the training of the dogs, and not their instincts, that results in vicious attacks on humans.
The idea that the community is beginning to feel its back against the wall was conveyed in somewhat ominous tones by several speakers. One man, a reporter for NYC radio station WBAI, spoke of history - in particular, of the genesis of the Deacons for Defense and Justice, an armed African-American civil rights organization which sprung up in the early 1960s in response to Klu Klux Klan violence in the South. Historians credit the Deacons confrontation with the Klan in Bogalusa as being instrumental in forcing the Federal government to intervene on behalf of the African-American community during that time. He recommended that "each and every member of the city council" watch the Spike Lee documentary "4 Little Girls," which deals with the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church which killed 4 young girls at Sunday services. In that documentary, Rev. James Bevel, from the pacifist Southern Christian Leadership Conference, described how after he and his wife learned of the bombing, they considered two options. "And this is a matter of record which I am reporting to you - the first option was to find out who killed their children, and see to it that they were killed. That is what this type of violence against the community can produce in the community," he said.
Another man mentioned one of the young women who suffered severe police dog bites, 23 year old Tiffany Lewis. Surveying the crowded room, he said that it appears that the community has finally had enough, and that henceforth it would defend its children
When the public was finished, at least three members of the council - Christine Bello, Mary Ann Dickinson and Marge Bell - had agreed that it was time for a review board. Bello said that it would be a priority at next week’s council work session. After some prodding from the audience, Bell agreed, while Mayor Valentine appeared somewhat dazed and completely overtaken by events unfolding in front of him. As if to accent the point, one city resident pointed out that Valentine has done nothing to reign in the police during his entire tenure as city council member and mayor; Valentine stared silently in response.