Police Chief Vernon Hale and local members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the League of United Latin American Citizens met Tuesday about how the department could improve community policing.
Hale answered questions, talked about police training and heard about how to improve relationships between police officers and the public.
It wasn’t the first time the groups had met with the police department, but the meeting occurred after a June 25 officer-involved shooting and a May incident in which a woman said police had bullied her and her grandson.
Galveston has responsible and talented police officers, but there always is room for improvement, Hale said.
The message he has tried to convey to his officers is that they need to be “guardians” of the public, while also at times becoming “soldiers” against crime, Hale said.
“These guys are awesome soldiers, but they’re also guardians,” Hale said. “My intent is to make sure that guardian is what you see without losing a single bit of that soldier we took a lot of time to build.”
Most residents who spoke said they wanted greater visibility of police officers, such as police attending youth groups or classrooms. Some residents shared anecdotes about positive and negative interactions they’d had with police officers.
The island needed a police force that better represented the community, residents said. More than 50 percent of the island’s population is black or Hispanic, but the police force does not reflect that, said Robert Quintero, deputy director of District 8 for LULAC.
Hale said he was working toward racial balance in recruitment and had moved the police academy back to Galveston, which should help recruit local officers.
Ball Street homeowner George Parsons asked about requiring police officers to live on the island. Hale agreed with the premise, but doubted such a rule would be enforceable, he said.
“I’d love to see that as well, but on a police officer’s starting salary it would be difficult,” Hale said.
Off the bat, Hale said he wouldn’t discuss details of the officer-involved shooting because it is still under investigation by the sheriff’s department.
On June 25, a Galveston police officer shot and killed Luis Argueta, 18, during a traffic stop. With the investigation pending, many details of the shooting have not yet been released.
Hale told the audience he was open to discussing the “atmosphere that surrounds” the shooting.
Leon Phillips of the Galveston County Coalition for Justice said he commended anyone who wears the badge, but also had concerns about the treatment of a Galveston woman and her grandson who filed a complaint against a police officer from Galveston and another from Hitchcock for bullying.
The issue was resolved about a month after the complaint was filed. The Galveston officer was taking sensitivity training and had it filed in his record, Hale said. Hale and the department have not identified the officer.
Janice Stanton, the Galveston woman who filed the complaint, offered to share her experience with new recruits and explain how it made her feel, Hale said.
Other audience members, including Quintero and David Miller, former president of the local NAACP, questioned why the officer hadn’t faced more punishment.
A handful of residents asked how to improve relationships when many people of color are fearful of police because of their own experiences or experiences they’ve heard about.
The issue was personal for Hale, he said. He has three sons and a daughter and worries for them, he said.
“I was black long before I was blue,” Hale said. “I get it, that’s what I can promise you. I try to translate that to every recruit I talk to.”
He has tried to impart to officers the concern and fear many people of color have, while trying to educate young people of color about how to treat officers they encounter, he said.
Hale urged children and young adults, especially, to comply with police orders and with problems later in court, he said. On the other hand, police officers are trained to de-escalate situations and should follow that training during interactions with the public, he said.
“The street is not the place to litigate,” Hale said.