Orlando Speaks, an interactive dialogue between city residents and police officers about police practices, held its third workshop at Howard Middle School on Tuesday, February 16.
Protests and criticism blemished the first workshop held last September. Orlando Speaks’ effectiveness has been called into question by the National Action Network Central Florida Chapter, Racial and Social Justice Alliance, Women of Color Leadership Coalition and the Fight Back Coalition. These local organizations urged the community to “say no” to the first official meeting demanding a zero-tolerance policy for use of excessive force by law enforcement, as well as an independent elected police citizen review board.
However, Rachel Chipman Allen, coordinator for the Valencia Peace and Justice Institute, which has administered all three Orlando Speaks events, says the events are just one part of the larger effort to address conflict between police and the community.
“These groups that are pressuring for citizen review groups and body cams – that’s all necessary, too,” says Allen. “There’s dialogue, there’s protests, there’s activism. There’s all different ways to bring about change, and I wouldn’t want to invalidate any of them.”
Lawanna Gelzer, president of the Central Florida Chapter of the National Action Network, is still adamant that Orlando Speaks isn’t the solution to the issues that citizens face when dealing with police.
“Peoples’ lives and feeling safe in their community shouldn’t always be about PR, and the one thing I hate is when the chief says, ‘Our officers just want to go home to their families, too,’” Gelzer says. “But that’s not the same for a citizen who gets stopped by a police officer?”
Run by the Valencia Peace and Justice Institute in conjunction with Orlando Police Chief John Mina and Mayor Buddy Dyer, the event strives to “increase awareness and understanding of policing practices” among city residents who are given the opportunity to sit down with police officers to share personal stories and experiences.
Before the three-hour event kicked off on Tuesday night, a group of black teenagers from the Parramore Kidz Zone walked into the middle school cafeteria that was already populated by roughly 100 black, white and Muslim members of the community.
Organizers from Valencia told the room to separate into tables of four: one millennial, two citizens and one police officer. Aside from sharing personal experiences with your table, participants and officers would be given the opportunity to stand up and address the entire crowd about the topic at hand, whether it be LGBT or race related.
One of the first officers who took the microphone at the podium to spoke about citizens’ tendency to recognize him just as a white man with a badge looking to give them a hard time rather than a gay man who’s getting married later this year.
Another participant raised her hand to speak. She said that her experience as a black Muslim enriches her life, but one time in Whole Foods, she said, a man kept making belligerent, violent threats against her simply because she looked Muslim. Now she fears going to her favorite store.
Although Orlando Speaks had its rare moments of laughter, it was a predominantly tense evening. People stood up and shared stories of profiling and mistreatment in the face of the establishment that caused it – and at times that establishment responded by pointing out that these issues aren’t always solely the police’s fault.
“A lot of the problem that we have in society is that society itself is badly biased,” Sgt. Jean Gabriel of Orlando Police Department said during a table-sharing session. When they call the police, when they call 911, it doesn’t matter which neighborhood it is – Parramore or College Park, there’s always bias in that call and that bias influences the way police respond.”
According to Allen, the Valencia Peace and Justice Institute will be compiling an assessment following the completion of Orlando Speaks, which currently doesn’t have an end in sight. The assessment will be based off a workshop evaluation that participants are encouraged to fill out at the end of the event.
The evaluation questions whether participants felt engaged during conversations and if they learned anything during Orlando Speaks that will motivate them to take a different course of action in the future. Allen is unsure if the assessment will be made available to the public.
“I think having a conversation at all is a good thing,” 26-year-old Roger Amundsen says after the event. It was his first experience with Orlando Speaks. “It’s a good place to start. There were a few times where I felt like there was just some good cop PR moments … and I know that’s not something that can be extrapolated across the board that cops have only their own interests at heart, but I think a few times it felt like an OPD PR campaign.”