Three months after protests over racial injustice spread across the country, the Community Strong committee is working to address related issues in Louisa County through outreach to neighborhoods.
The committee, made up of the Louisa NAACP, county and school officials, law enforcement and churches, has organized a number of informal events to begin building relationships with residents. The first of these get-togethers was at Pine Ridge Apartments in the town of Louisa on the evening of Aug. 23, where sheriff’s office leaders, town police and members of the board of supervisors enjoyed food, music and games with the community.
Earlier in the summer, committee members met with a group of church ministers to hear about their impressions and experiences with racism in the county.
“We were getting a feeling for where people were and what concerns they had with law enforcement,” said Larry Lewis, a committee member and pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Holly Grove. “So it was to bridge the gap between the police and the community and try to develop a better relationship.”
While the focus of the committee so far is on policing practices, the committee is likely to branch out into other areas, he said.
Pine Ridge residents said they appreciated that staff of the sheriff’s office and Louisa town police made the effort to come to their neighborhood.
“It helps make a bond so that you’re not scared to talk to them,” said Marisa Rock, who lives at Pine Ridge with her two children. Often, she said, the police “make a lap and go back out,” but this time they got out of their vehicles to talk.
Rock’s son, a third-grader at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, already knew one of the sheriff’s deputies at the event, School Resource Officer Tony Grymes.
“I don’t fear the police,” said Lois Coles, one of Rock’s neighbors, who also attended the community gathering. “A lot of people fear them because they draw the police’s attention.” She said often that attention is justified because of activities people engage in.
But Lewis noted that in other cases residents, especially African Americans, draw police attention when it isn’t warranted. As an example, he noted that many Black people in Louisa and other communities have reported that they were pulled over while driving, seemingly because of their skin color. The Community Strong process is an opportunity for law enforcement officials to hear about these instances from residents first-hand.
“Sometimes, unless the right environment is created, the information never comes forward. And because [police leadership] didn’t hear about it, they think everything is hunky-dory,” Lewis said.
Supervisor Duane Adams (Mineral District) helped launch the Community Strong effort in June when he presented a resolution at a board meeting that called for a “peaceful end to racism.” Adams said he is especially concerned about relations between law enforcement and citizens, particularly young men of color.
He also expects the committee to begin tackling the issue of hiring practices in county government and in the public schools, two of the biggest employers in Louisa.
“We want employment to look like our county,” he said. “Diversity has a broad definition, but we want to be sure this is a welcoming county. We want to look at people as individuals and for them to be judged on merit.”
Lewis said he would like to see the sheriff’s office and schools consider hiring a diversity officer, someone whose job would be to ensure government agencies don’t just recruit people of color, but also give them incentives to stay over time.
He recalled that when he was a Louisa County Public Schools teacher and principal, it was hard to retain highly-skilled teachers. They would be trained in Louisa, then leave for better-paying jobs elsewhere. In the case of young Black teachers, the schools may have lost opportunities to prepare some of them for leadership roles such as principal or administrator.
For now, members of the Community Strong committee are engaged in developing relationships with citizens, hoping those informal conversations will lead to substantive dialogue on policing practices, hiring and other issues over time. Greg Jones, Louisa NAACP president and the committee chairman, said this is how he expects the process will unfold.
“There’s a lot I’m learning that I hope we can build on, as far as not being afraid of asking things,” he said. “In any relationship, if you don’t have communication, you don’t have anything.”