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Midlands Leaders Call for Unity in Wake of Tragedies

Police officers joined others from the community in prayer and song Friday night (photo by Allen Wallace).

There was no violence in the Midlands Friday related to the deaths of five police officers in Dallas and the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. There was sadness. There was anger. But no one turned to violence.

Law enforcement officers from across the Midlands gathered at Columbia Police Department headquarters for a cookout to raise money for Officer Pete Conklin, who was seriously injured in the line of duty in May. The turnout was more than anyone expected, not only officers and their friends and families, but also many who had never met Conklin.

“We have a great community. That’s what has separated us from many other places throughout the country in these challenging times,” Chief Skip Holbrook said. “We talk about relationships and partnerships all the time, and this reinforces that, when you see complete strangers show up and offer encouragement…We have an incredible amount of cooperation and support from the citizens we serve.”

Holbrook has emphasized community policing and building relationships since arriving in Columbia, and said those relationships often prevent violence. “We have processes and accountability so if something occurs in our community, there’s trust in law enforcement, trust in our processes, trust in our ability to be accountable and transparent so we have those moments of pause that allow us to gather facts and share facts so we can all make solid decisions and strategize how we move forward,” he said.

Pastor Michael Baker, senior pastor at Greater St. Luke’s Baptist Church in Columbia and chaplain for the Columbia Police Department, agreed. “It’s very important that there’s a constant dialogue and a constant communication,” he said. “So that if anything happens we are dialoguing to prevent anything tragically from happening, and then we can come together in the community and talk about what’s the problem and come up with a resolve, and show that there is solidarity.”

That solidarity was on display Friday evening as Baker and other pastors hosted a community meeting at Greater St. Luke’s entitled “Moving from Protest to Prayer.” Holbrook and about two dozen other law enforcement officers attended along with others from across the community. The pastors offered prayers for the police, the churches, and the community, and Officer Jason Robert led those assembled in songs of praise.

“We want to come together in the house of prayer tonight at St. Luke’s and pray for community, our cops, our clergy, so that we can prevent what’s happened in Dallas and other cities from happening here,” Baker said.

Leaders from across the Midlands spoke Friday, calling for love in the face of hate. “Let’s recommit to airing our views in a way that is civil and responsible and recommit to opposing violence in all of its forms, including violent language and hate speech,” said University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides. “While hate speech isn’t the same as a physical act of hate, it is on the spectrum and we should reject all forms of hate. Hatred of any kind does not reflect our American values.”

Holbrook and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott released a statement together. “As South Carolinians, we have endured our own senseless tragedies. Although heartbroken and angered, our citizens have not let these tragedies cause even more harm by inciting further violence, but have always come together in support of one another,” the statement said. “Please continue to shine your star on the City of Columbia, Richland County and the great state of South Carolina.” They offered condolences to the Sterling and Castile families as well as to the families of the officers killed in Dallas.

Leaders from the Regional Mayors Forum representing municipalities in Richland, Lexington, Fairfield and Kershaw counties also released a statement. “We stand together as Mayors in this region denouncing violence of any kind,” the statement said. “We ask our churches to reach out to other churches; our neighborhoods to reach out to other neighborhoods; our cities and towns to embrace each other – both differences and similarities. When we know each other better, we will know peace and justice.”

Heroes in Blue founder Kassy Alia, whose husband, Officer Greg Alia of the Forest Acres Police Department, died in the line of duty, attended the fundraiser for Officer Conklin Friday. She expressed compassion for the families of the fallen officers and of Sterling and Castile, and for anyone victimized by racism. She also reminded us of what Friday meant for law enforcement officers in Dallas, in the Midlands, and elsewhere.

“The reality is their brothers and sisters in blue all across the county had to go back to work today,” she said. “Just putting on their uniform, they are heroes.”

The full statements from Sheriff Lott and Chief Holbrook and from the Regional Mayors Forum follow. More photos from the fundraiser cookout and from the prayer meeting are available on the Midlands Anchor Facebook page.

“The disturbing events of this week alone are evidence enough that we have a systemic problem in our nation.

As leaders, our work is focused on developing thriving communities that celebrate the principle that “all men are created equal.” As Martin Luther King, Jr. stated long ago with words that still ring true today, we all have a responsibility to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” To create that symphony of brotherhood, the musical notes must include all citizens from all corners of the Midlands who’ll join together with our law enforcement officers. It will take each and every one of us to make that melody sing.

We stand together as Mayors in this region denouncing violence of any kind. We ask our churches to reach out to other churches; our neighborhoods to reach out to other neighborhoods; our cities and towns to embrace each other – both differences and similarities. When we know each other better, we will know peace and justice. Our diversity – politically, geographically, demographically – is not a burden to be feared, but an asset to be celebrated. Please join us as we demonstrate kindness as a way to honor every life that has been lost. ”

Participating Leaders:

Steve Benjamin, City of Columbia, S.C.
Michael Bishop, Town of Springdale, S.C.
Troy Bivens, Town of Gaston, S.C.
Frank Brunson, City of Forest Acres, S.C.
David Busby, Town of Pine Ridge, S.C.
Randy Clamp, Gilbert, S.C.
Rita Crapps, Batesburg-Leesville, S.C.
Todd Cullum, Lexington County Council
Roger Gaddy, Winnsboro, S.C.
Gregory Guinyard, Town of Jenkinsville, S.C.
Charlene Herring, Ridgeway, S.C.

 

“As we are all too aware, tragic events around the country have exposed fractures in the public’s trust of police. Again, in recent days, we have watched even more tragic events unfold, including officer involved shootings with fatalities in Louisiana and Minnesota. And, last night, a horrific ambush-style attack on police officers took place in Dallas, Texas, killing five (5) officers and wounding many more.
On behalf of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the Columbia Police Department, Sheriff Leon Lott and I offer our condolences to the Sterling and Castile families. We also mourn the loss of our fellow law enforcement officers. Our thoughts and prayers are with their loved ones, the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas Area Rapid Transit. We hope for a speedy recovery for all those who were injured.

Law enforcement cannot be effective unless we have the trust and confidence of our community, and that trust is based on transparency, accountability and legitimacy. As many of you know, there is a national movement to improve community-police relationships and to implement reforms in the police profession.

Sheriff Lott and I have not been complacent in our efforts to build and maintain your trust. We have committed ourselves to re-evaluating our use of force policies and procedures, training our officers to de-escalate situations and building and sustaining collaborative problem-solving partnerships with our citizenry. We are working diligently to bridge any gaps through communication and engagement with our citizens.

With all that we have done, our work is far from complete. Change does not happen by chance or accident. It takes courage, leadership, collaboration and innovation on the part of both law enforcement and citizens. Community-police relations must be continually fostered; the partnership is a two-way street. We demonstrate that every day through our longstanding police-community partnerships here in the Midlands. We ask that you continue to engage with us in efforts to implement reforms that will make both our communities and officers safer. 

As South Carolinians, we have endured our own senseless tragedies. Although heartbroken and angered, our citizens have not let these tragedies cause even more harm by inciting further violence, but have always come together in support of one another.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Please continue to shine your star on the City of Columbia, Richland County and the great state of South Carolina.”

Chief Holbrook and Sheriff Lott

 

 

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