By Anthony Machcinski | Our York Media
Dr. Larry Walthour endures the same routine every time he’s pulled over: He puts his car in park, calls his wife and sets the phone aside, then sticks his hands out the window – all before the officer even approaches the vehicle.
The habit stems from a lifelong distrust of police and the unknown of what might happen next.
“As an African American man,” he says, “when I’m stopped, I feel fear.”
The senior pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church on York City’s west side shares that feeling with many of the people in his congregation and surrounding community. There’s a systemic fear of people of color, he says, and it’s a conversation many black families must have with their kids.
“To bring these things to light is not to condemn law enforcement,” Walthour says. “It’s just saying that it’s something that needs to be addressed.”
Over the past several years, clashes between minorities and police have flared up across the nation, leading to the events in Ferguson in 2014 to the closer-to-home unrest in Baltimore in 2015.
With so many incidents happening around the country since, how, some wondered, could we prevent similar catastrophe from erupting here in York —a place where memories of the 1969 race riots remain fresh?
Around the time of Colin Kaepernick’s first protests in fall 2016, more than 70 people crammed into a downtown school building. Mostly black ministers sat on one side; about a dozen local police chiefs from around York County sat on the other.
“We just said that we couldn’t wait until a crisis to start building relationships,” says the Rev. Aaron Anderson, CEO of Logos Academy.
Anderson, who’s white, offered his school as a gathering space. The goal of the meeting was to address problems between minorities and local police and help form solutions.
“There were some tough questions that night,” recalls Northern York County Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel. “I think people were more guarded – where they sat, what they said and how they said it.”
As people from both sides started to open up, they started to see progress.
“There were some tough questions that night. I think people were more guarded – where they sat, what they said and how they said it.”
“We were led to start a conversation with police, to see how we, as clergy, can help them, serve them and do what we need to get the message out there,” says Pastor Bill Kerney, president of the Black Ministers’ Association of York. “What a better way to do that then to have a dialogue so that we’re all on the same page.”
Dr. Sharon Lincoln, CEO of the Well Family Life Center in York, agreed.
“Being able to come and talk about these things opened the way to serious conversation,” she says. “It created ways that could change our perceptions of each other.”
The meeting was an eye-opener to many of the chiefs.
Springettsbury Township Police Chief Daniel Stump remembers thinking that much of the ire from the ministers would be directed at then-York City Police Chief Wes Kahley. Instead, he says, many of the departments outside of the city took heat.
“I kept hearing things that night that I just didn’t know,” Stump says. “Pastors are standing up saying they were scared to drive through Springettsbury. They were scared to leave the city at night, and it broke my heart.”
After several hours of discussion scattered with some tense moments, both sides decided to regularly hold talks like this in the future.
From then on, “the group,” as they casually called themselves, met monthly. It’s since been scaled down to about 20 ministers along with the chiefs, which allows for more intimate conversation and trust-building.
Walthour remembers one of the group’s cornerstone moments, which happened at an early meeting when one pastor stood up to address the room.
“We are not going to be able to have open and honest discussions until we’re able to put our own implicit biases on the same table,” the pastor said. “Until we deal with that, we cannot have honest dialogue.”
In other words, the pastor suggested openly discussing the stereotypes and attitudes each race grew up learning.
“When he said that, it was raw, in-your-face honesty,” Walthour says. “It helped us take the next step.”
In another meeting, Lincoln shared the story of her great grandson, who, at only about 2 years old, panicked when a police officer came near him.
“I couldn’t understand why he was so afraid of them,” she remembers. “It’s almost like he was born with the fear. He was so afraid that I had to pick him up and carry him away to calm him down. That fear is part of our community.”
“So many people have had encounters with law enforcement and didn’t make it home. That fear is real. These are conversations we had at the table.”
It’s an issue that spans beyond York County.
Walthour was living in South Florida years ago when he was being stopped for a busted taillight when he saw officers advancing on his car with their hands on their guns.
“You’re looking at life and death, and you don’t know if you’re going to make it home from this police stop,” Walthour says. “So many people have had encounters with law enforcement and didn’t make it home. That fear is real. These are conversations we had at the table.”
It was that blunt honesty that York City Police Chief Troy Bankert loves about the group. Many in the group, he says, will come with a question or a problem. Instead of just airing their grievances with the police department, they seek ways to be a part of the solution.
“These are the guys I need,” Bankert says. “If they’re going to be that cooperative with us, we go out of our way to cooperate with them because they’re our true partner.”
Nearly two years after the first meeting, the conference room at Logos Academy feels more like a family table than a meeting, with chiefs and ministers blending in with each other. The days of the divided table ended long ago.
“I’m really happy with the relationships and the friendships that we’ve built,” says Chief Mark Bentzel of Northern York County Regional. “What I’ve been taught the most is the perspectives from the clergy who are representing the minority population that I just didn’t have before – you think you know, but you have no idea.”
Lincoln echoes those sentiments.
“We have bridged the gap and have become friends with a goal,” she says. “We all have a job to do and to learn things — honoring people in the way that we resolve problems and not create more.”
The group’s past two years haven’t been easy.
“We have bridged the gap and have become friends with a goal. We all have a job to do and to learn things — honoring people in the way that we resolve problems and not create more”
Even in the past several months, episodes across the county put York back in a negative national light, from the KKK fliers passed out in a movie theater parking lot over the summer to the incident at Grandview Golf Course in April.
Even in that case, where five African American female golfers were kicked off of a golf course, the ministers praised the efforts of the police officers, who subdued the situation instead of making matters worse.
“In the past, law enforcement has been viewed to escalate situations as opposed to de-escalating it,” Walthour says. “Because we were at the table prior to that happening, and those officers going to racial intelligence training, they handled it in a whole different manner.”
“Imagine if police had botched that. What a disaster that would have been,” he says. “The whole incident was an embarrassment already, and that could’ve been a true debacle.”
The relationships fostered in the group have proved beneficial for both sides. For ministers, it has become a way to relate the message from the public to police respectfully. For the chiefs, it’s created an avenue to improve the police department with community input.
Stump has leaned on and included the group of ministers several times over the years.
When his Springettsbury Township department was undergoing a review of its policies from the Department of Justice in 2016, he invited members of the group in on training.
Later, when the use of deadly force was ruled in the police-involved shooting of Todd Shultz outside of a Kmart and a wrongful death claim was settled in April 2017, Stump reached out to Kerney, a black minister, about how the results might be perceived – even with Shultz being a white man.
“They’re helping me understand the pulse of our community,” Stump says. “Not just the African American community, but the community as a whole.”
As Bentzel sits in his Dover office, he lauds the group’s accomplishments and praises the strides made, but he knows the work isn’t done.
“My biggest question I keep saying is ‘How do we take these relationships we built and get the trickledown to my officers and their communities?’” he says. “The reality is, Chief Mark Bentzel is probably not going to stop Pastor Bill Kerney in a traffic stop.”
There’s no real defined answer. Bentzel responds to his own question by saying to “start with ourselves and start with the people we have influence over to try and change thoughts and behaviors.”
The group has found themselves interacting on a larger basis with each other outside of the regular phone call or breakfast meeting.
Shiloh Baptist Church, where Walthour is the senior pastor, runs a “street warriors” program every week, where members of the community walk the streets, talking to residents. They’re joined every week by members of the York City Police Department, where even Chief Bankert has joined them on several occasions.
“If residents trust me, they’ll trust the other guys in uniform.”
“If residents trust me, they’ll trust the other guys in uniform,” he says. “I’ll do one and then take one of my supervisors. Next time, the supervisors go, and then they take another officer. I approach it with the thought that if it’s valuable to me as chief, it’ll become valuable to you.”
While these events are stepping stones, and progress has been made in the two years, the group knows it has a long way to go before things change – long after many of them retire from their positions of influence.
“We didn’t get here overnight,” Walthour says. “The mistrust has been taking years. There is deep-rooted, systemic mistrust for more than 50 years. That’s not going to be erased in two, but I think we’re on the right road.”
Thinking about the group after a meeting, Anderson sat down with his wife about a year ago and mulled the group’s potential legacy.
“These are two groups that could be hostile being brought back together,” Anderson says. “I told her, ‘I think when I look back on my life, I’ll look at this and say this was one of the more interesting things that I’ve seen.”
He paused for a moment, then continued.
“These were people who really distrusted each other, and now I watch them when they come together, and they hug. Little by little, we’re changing York County. The seeds have been sewn.”
Invitation to a Conversation
After two years operating in relative quiet, the group of ministers and chiefs will hold an event, inviting the public in on some of the conversations they’ve had in the past two years.
The goal of this event, and the group as a whole, is to create a model for unity that can be a guide for others throughout the nation.
If you go…
What: Invitation to a Conversation: Building trust between police and community
Where: Logos Academy, 250 W. King St., York
When: 7-8:30 p.m., Nov. 1
RSVP: To register or learn more, click here.