Brookhaven’s Social Justice, Race, and Equity Commission is gearing up to finalize its recommendations for the city, but some members question whether they’ve been able to do enough. 

The city established the commission in September of 2020 to address issues of diversity and social justice in the city, and make recommendations about how to improve those issues to the Brookhaven City Council at the end of 2021. The commission is divided into four subcommittees, designed to review the city’s mission statement and vision; hiring and retention practices; procurement processes; and police department accountability in regard to use of force. 

During an Oct 21 meeting, chairs of each of the SJREC subcommittees presented their preliminary findings for the recommendations they will make at the end of the year. However, during an Oct. 13 meeting of the commission’s policing subcommittee, some commissioners expressed their frustration with how much the volunteer commission had been able to achieve. 

Commissioner Conni Todd said she felt like there were too many missing pieces for the subcommittee to make impactful recommendations, and she thought the committee experienced trouble reaching out and connecting to marginalized communities. 

“I’m a lot frustrated and a bit concerned,” Todd said. “Quite frankly, I feel a little guilty – not that there was anything different that we could do – I feel almost like personally, I’ve let the commission down because I can’t put my arms around where to go for a next step for recommendations due to a lack of information and a lack of time.” 

Commissioners discussed difficulties they had experienced throughout the year, particularly when it came to connecting with Brookhaven’s Hispanic community. Some commissioners also said they didn’t feel the data they’d collected, both from surveys and from the Brookhaven Police Department, was enough to move forward.

“I really don’t feel like I have a full grasp … other than the data provided by Brookhaven and the disparities that we saw as a team, but not necessarily the support for the recommendations,” said Co-Chair Monique Hudson.

Lesley Grady of Chrysalis Lab – the organization management nonprofit that consults with the commission – said other subcommittees have had similar issues with connecting to the Hispanic community, including Spanish translation issues and a lack of engagement at the commission’s community pop-up events. 

Co-Chair Shahrukh Arif said he felt the subcommittee had done a poor job of engaging with the Brookhaven Police Department, and felt “relatively frustrated at the direction of this committee.” 

“The only way to get people across the hump is to engage,” Arif said. “It doesn’t matter if they don’t like what we’re going to say. It doesn’t matter if they’re going to be standoffish. If you don’t engage, then it doesn’t matter. Everything you’re doing is going to be, for the most part, performative.”

Earlier in the year, the entire SJREC commission held Inclusivv dinners, formerly known as “civic dinners,” for residents in the community. These conversations were structured to allow residents to engage with each other on issues of race and equity. In an emailed statement Arif said the subcommittee made a decision not to hold these types of events with Brookhaven police officers.

“Though not all commissioners were involved in the decision, it was determined not to engage Brookhaven Police Officers through Civic Dinners/Inclusivv dinners until the subcommittee’s recommendations were further developed,” Arif said in the email. “In addition, BPD has worked closely with the subcommittee throughout this process by providing trainings, data, and attended meetings when requested.”

Some commissioners discussed the possibility of one of their recommendations being to ask for more time, but some felt the city should put this position on the payroll. 

“I think at some level, if the city is serious about this, then they need to put their money where their mouth is,” Arif said. “This is not work that’s going to be done by a volunteer organization. They need to have an equity officer, or something like that, that is constantly working with the community, that is looking at these problems, who is pushing recommendations that they know are realistic.” 

Preliminary Recommendations 

When the policing subcommittee presented its preliminary ideas for recommendations at the entire commission’s Oct. 21 meeting, no one mentioned asking for more time or creating a paid position as one of the possible recommendations. Instead the subcommittee’s ideas centered around the way the BPD collects race and ethnicity data, officer training, and exposing “gaps in community trust.”

“We are interested in where there might be some blind spots and being able to identify those blind spots and doing outreach, particularly [with] more marginalized populations that might not have as good of a relationship with BPD,” said Mindy Kao of Chrysalis Lab, the organization management nonprofit that consults with the commission.

Prior to 2020, the BPD did not include an ethnicity category in its arrest statistics, instead choosing to report Hispanic arrestees as white. The department does report ethnicity now, but Kao said the policing subcommittee had some ideas about how it could be better presented. 

“When it comes to presenting the data, it’s often presented separately between race and between ethnicity, and so understanding how the Hispanic population is impacted, or the interactions they have with BPD, is not as clear,” Kao said. 

Kao said the subcommittee would also support officer training, particularly in the areas of mental health and cultural competency. She also said the subcommittee would be interested in having an external third party review individuals’ complaints against the police department. 

Co-Chair Tiffany Russell gave an update on the vision and mission subcommittee’s recommendations, which focus creating an equitable city mission statement and looking for barriers to equity within the city’s charter. Russell said the subcommittee has looked at other cities’ social justice initiatives and contacted those cities for support.

“We’re in the process now of collecting our data and examining trends and lessons learned from our research that can inform some of our recommendations to the city,” Russell said. 

Co-Chair William Naglich spoke on behalf of the hiring and retention committee. He said the committee recently completed a survey of city staff, and a third party is analyzing the data. 

“We hope to have the initial analysis soon,” he said. 

Naglich said the subcommittee’s recommendations would focus on improving recruitment, hiring, and onboarding policies, and improved Human Resources software to more easily identify potential issues before they arise. 

“We anticipate that will include expanded interview panels, and an improved application process, as well as additional standardized interview questions and procedures,” Naglich said. “We’re recommending improved and expanded hiring and standard operating procedures so there’s a better internal understanding, both of the staff and management, of what’s expected so things can properly be tracked.”

Co-Chair James Moses gave an update on the procurement and contracting subcommittee’s recommendations, which he said would focus on outreach and education on opportunities of doing business in Brookhaven. 

“What we want to try to do is develop more partnerships, mentorships, or suggest these things to the city, to try to encourage a more diverse population of bidders, and encourage more populations to come and do business with the city of Brookhaven,” Moses said. “We feel that’s going to be necessary for the growth of the city.” 

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.