FOREST PARK — Young, old, and in-between residents of Forest Park packed Solo’s Barber Shop on Forest Parkway Thursday night to learn more about what the police do and to tell officers what their own encounters with law enforcement have been like.
Some customers who came into the “man cave” for a haircut were surprised to see Capt. Jason Armstrong, detectives, and officers holding the first in a series of community conversations in local barber shops and salons.
“Is this a Neighborhood Watch meeting?” asked one participant.
This was different.
The purpose of Thursday’s conversation, Armstrong explained, was to build relationships and partnerships in the community.
Free pizza and soft drinks sat off to one side as Armstrong, with the help of a police intern acting as a driver, explained what cops do during a traffic stop and offered tips on things drivers can do in that situation.
“Turn on the overhead light,” he said. “We love that.”
Another tip: Don’t reach for your wallet until the officer actually comes over and asks to see your driver’s license.
“What if you tell the officer you have a gun?” asked one.
“You tell me you have a gun, I’m going to say ‘Cool. I’ll make you a promise. You don’t pull out your gun, and I won’t pull out my gun.”
No citizen is required to talk to an officer because the Fifth Amendment gives them that right. However, Armstrong said, when officers are looking for someone in particular, they might ask you for that information.
If a citizen feels like the interaction isn’t going well, he or she can ask the officer to call a supervisor. And if you get a ticket or get arrested, never argue with the officer — straighten it out later in court.
People expressed some frustration over their encounters with police in general, but offered praise for the job Forest Park cops are doing to keep the community safe.
“Alright, man, we have a predominantly minority community,” Armstrong explained. “Everybody recognizes this. That’s what Forest Park is, OK? The police, we deal with crime, OK? We investigate crime. So let’s just take the crime of armed robbery. In the 17 years that I’ve been working here, over 80 percent of the armed robberies have been committed by a black person. Those are facts. It’s actually higher than that, but I didn’t want to make it sound like too many.”
The audience laughed.
Armstrong cited the Family Dollar/Waffle House robbery suspect. Officers go to the scene, collect as much information as possible and send a report to the detectives. Then the detectives work the case, pulling video from security cameras and talking to people who might know something about the incident. Then the detectives send that information back out to the officers on patrol —things like photos and a description of the suspect, along with maps of where the incident or possibly related incidents happened.
“Because we’re trying to prevent the next one from happening,” Armstrong said. “So when our officers go out there on patrol, orange coat is what it is, right now.”
Armstrong added that, when police pull someone over for not wearing a seatbelt, they often find a lot more going on, like drugs in the car.
One question people often ask is whether marijuana is now legal in Forest Park — the answer is no.
Although the City Council voted to decriminalize marijuana last year, decriminalization is not the same thing as legalization. It’s still illegal to possess or smoke marijuana in the city of Forest Park.
The City Council voted to stop sending people to jail for quantities under 1 ounce. It also changed the $1,000 possession fine to $100 for the first offense, $300 if you’re caught a second time, and an amount that’s left up to the judge to decide for third and subsequent offenses.
The conversation turned to young people getting sucked into gang activity and ways that the police and adults could work together to steer those kids back on track. Some ideas included Police Athletic League (PAL) programs and urging black fraternity members to get more involved in Forest Park.
“If you tell the young people this information — see, they’re getting one side of information,” one man who asked not to be identified said, “but that’s not knowledge. Knowledge is when you get the facts and choose, that’s knowledge. I’m just happy listening to this. I feel non-threatened.”
“Me too,” someone added, as others agreed.
“If I see one of y’all, I’m gonna be like, ‘What’s happening?’”
The next meeting of “The Law and Your Community” will take place on Feb. 28 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at United Barbershop, 4491 Jonesboro Road. Free food and drinks will be provided.