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Social media posts draw attention from PA clergy

Port Arthur is joining forces to head off racial tensions that have plagued other parts of the nation — sometimes resulting in death at the hands of the very officers sworn to protect and serve, or at church where those worshiping are the target of hate crimes.
On Wednesday, a group of Port Arthur clergy and representatives of the local NAACP, met in solidarity with city officials to do what they could to not only protect the city from the violence suffered increasingly around the nation, including Texas, but to turn Port Arthur into a model city of diversity.
But, first the city has work to do in its own backyard.
Though not rising to the level of the growing number of African Americans who have died while interacting with police in recent years, Port Arthur’s police force did find itself cast in a negative light last month when certain racially insensitive social media postings surfaced.
In a press conference Wednesday, Thurman Bartie, pastor of First Sixth Street Baptist Church, read a prepared statement while flanked by Port Arthur clergy, Police Chief Mark Blanton, City Manager Brian McDougal and other city officials.
“The nation is alarmed by the growing number of African Americans who have been killed or died by the hands or in the presence of law enforcement officers, Ferguson, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Cleveland, municipalities in the Carolinas and even Hempstead, Texas, which is in our front yard, are cities that have dominated the news with these violent acts.
“As well, African American churches are proving to be soft targets to racial hostility and violence s demonstrated in Charleston, South Carolina. The establishment of the “Black Lives Matter Movement,” is now gaining national support,” Bartie said.
Bartie said members of the Ministers Conference of Port Arthur and the Black Pastors Association, in an effort to be proactive, have begun a dialogue with the city’s police department and city administration.
“In our meeting, parameters have been set to resolve matters of PAPD officers and city employees regarding allegations of racial innuendoes on various social media,” Bartie said.
At issue is social media postings made on Facebook that came to light during the latter part of July. The postings were made by three of police department’s officers and a civil employee:  PAPD Sgt. Jeremy Lloyd, Detective Tommy Savoie, Officer Joe Paul, and Brenda Swan, who works in the evidence room.
In his Facebook post, Savoie describes first lady Michelle Obama as un-American, and uses the “B” word to describe her character.
In another post on Lloyd’s Facebook page, activist Al Sharpton was described as a race baiter, and the word “a–hole.”
Officer Joe Paul weighed in on the removal of Confederate Flag issue with profanity in a rant that went on to question whether the American Flag was next to be taken down.
Another post, by Swan, shows a woman wearing what appears to be a black curly wig, with the comment, “I just wanted to say…I identify myself as black.”
Since the postings surfaced, Blanton has taken a zero tolerance stance and crafted a social media policy reflecting new departmental rules.
The policy, Blanton said, is a stop-gap measure modeled after one already adopted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Blanton said the city would be crafting a more detailed social media policy that will have to be adopted by City Council.
Though none of the officers or the civil employee involved in the postings has been disciplined, Blanton said the matter is still under investigation.
The department is also sending two officers to training next month to learn extensive techniques designed to protect churches.
Bartie said some local churches have organized security teams to protect the congregation during times of worship.
Wednesday was not the first time the ministers have met with city officials.
Last week, a delegation of clergy met with City Manager Brian McDougal.
“I am very pleased the ministers in our city have approached us to take a look at these topics that can be hard to talk about before anything happens,” McDougal said.
After the press conference Wednesday, the city’s NAACP branch issued a statement stating serious concerns and calling on the city to address the repercussions from the postings.
“After hearing the concerns of the citizens of our community with regard to the recent racial overtone posts made by local law enforcement officers and a civilian employee on social media, we are convinced that the peace and integrity of our city has been compromised,” the NAACP stated.
As a result of a meeting between the NAACP and the city last week, the local chapter is calling for the resignation of the officers  and civil employee involved. If the Police Department employees choose to stay on the job, they should be immediately terminated, the NAACP stated.
The NAACP is also calling for the public identification of the officers and the employee for the safety of citizens; the establishment of a police advisory committee; the implementation of a departmental social media policy and mandatory participation of all officers and employees in annual sensitivity classes.
Bartie said Wednesday, the African-American community is taking steps of its own to ensure anytime someone is stopped by police that the incident will not escalated into loss of life.
“There are certain organizations that have begun training African-Americans,” Bartie said. “We do not want what has happened elsewhere to happen in Port Arthur.”
Blanton said he has spoken to Mark Porterie, Port Arthur Independent School District superintendent, about educating students on how to act when they are stopped by police so that what could be a tense situation does not escalated into tragedy.
On Aug. 22, PRO-ACT, a community group dedicated to raising awareness about social issues, will begin meeting in common areas of apartment complexes with Port Arthur police, to give residents an opportunity to meet the officers that serve in a friendly setting.
McDougal said Port Arthur is a city diverse in its citizenry with large communities representing not only African Americans but also numerous Hispanic nations, Vietnam, Pakistan, India, just to name a few.
During the process to craft the city’s overall social media policy, McDougal said a committee of different cultures would be formed to provide input.
“On behalf of the ministers conference, we want to thank them for reaching out, and assure them this is not being swept under the rug, but is being approached vigorously in a positive manner.
“I hope Port Arthur will become a model city. We have all the right components for a very diverse community that gets along with each other, and I truly mean that,” McDougal said.
E-mail: sherry.koonce@panews.com
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