‘Putting our dirty laundry on the table’
Could the recent violence between police officers and minority community members occur in Bethlehem?
That was the focus of a recent town hall, attended by over 60 people. “It is basically ripping our country apart,” said Police Chief Mark DiLuzio. “If we’re going to solve this problem, we’re going to have to put our dirty laundry out on the table, every single one of us.”
Former Northampton County Council candidate Jose Garcia drew loud groans when he denied there’s any dirty laundry or racism. He said that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, people in Bethlehem had no need to lock their doors or cars because everyone was “working their heads off” at the steel company. Now, he sees little children running around near the Sands Casino at 3 a.m. “Where’s their parents?” he asked. “That’s the big issue.”
Cordelia Miller, NAACP vice president, agreed, at least in part. She pointed to the plight of single black mothers with no education who must work to support their children. “What chance do they have?” she asked.
“When you start talking about race, everybody gets very nervous,” she continued. “But until we have that talk, we’re never going to get anywhere.”
This forum was chaired by the indomitable Esther Lee, president of Bethlehem’s NAACP, wearing her ubiquitous church lady hat. Mayor Bob Donchez, DiLuzio, several council members, State Representative Steve Samuelson and numerous local pastors attended. But it was the audience, not the panelists, who had the most to say.
Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio condemned the violence between police officers and minorities, but was taken aback by allegations of disrespect and possible racism in his own police department. Jamie and William Strouse, a biracial couple from West Bethlehem, shared several stories.
William, who is white, was pulled over by Bethlehem police for driving a car with an expired inspection sticker. He was issued a warning. But when his black father-in-law committed the same infraction, the police reaction was quite different.
“What are you doing in this part of town?” is the first question the officer had for the black father-in-law. He lives on Union Street in Allentown and was picking up his granddaughter to watch her for the day. The officer, who spotted the expired inspection, did a U-Turn as Jamie Strouse’s father pulled over at his daughter’s home on West Broad street. Nervous, he thought he may have brushed up against her car. When she came out to explain the situation to the officer, he told her to “step away from the vehicle.” A K-9 van from Allentown was soon at the scene of the expired inspection sticker. The granddaughter was crying while neighbors stood outside, gawking.
“I get a warning, and he gets a K-9 call,” said Strouse.
Jamie, who is black, also discussed a September incident in which she was driving her son Calypso school (she also works at the school district). She noticed police cars everywhere at the school. When she asked an officer what was going on, he said it was because of “people like you.” He instructed her to move, and an officer started following her. The bus driver in front of her had to vouch for her. When she left, a third police car followed her out. “The worst part of this is it happened in front of my son,” said Strouse, saying she had always taught her son that police officers exist “to serve and protect.”
“When we think about African American men wanting to become police officers, we first have to be able to view them as our allies, and that’s a big problem,” she told the gathering. “There’s this divide. It’s us versus them. It’s not helpful to anyone on either side.”
“This is the first time I’m hearing about this,” said Police Chief Mark DiLuzio, who had just finished explaining how difficult it is to recruit minority officers. “If I had heard about it ahead of time, believe me, heads would have rolled,” he said. But he was also skeptical. “I’ve been doing this job 36 years. I know a lot of good cops in Bethlehem. You’re not talking about anybody I know.”
No rank-and-file police officers were on hand to respond.
“I don’t care what color the officer is,” noted William. “That doesn’t matter to me. It’s the treatment and respect of the officer to the community.” He added that now, when his five-year old son sees an officer, he asks, “Is he going to be rude like the other one was to Mom?”
Did the Strouses simply misinterpreted things? Not according to Sonia Zahm, a guidance counselor with the Bethlehem Area School District for the past 15 years. She said she hears the same tales from families at Donegan ES, on the city’s Southside. “Those kids that I heard those stories from are now Liberty HS teenagers, and they’re angry and their families are angry,” she said.
“Maybe they [police officers] need to be trained about how to be human,” she suggested, and related what had just happened to her 16 year old white son, who was driving a car his family just purchased for him. Once again, it was an expired inspection sticker. “Mom, why was it necessary for the cop to be mean and rude to me?” he asked his mother when he got home.
He was given a $103 fine and told that costs will be more. “I hear these stories all the time,” said Zahm. “It makes me sad for our community.”
Esther Lee suggested her son is lucky “Your son can say ‘No sir; Yes, sir” Our son can say that and if they move their hands, they’re dead.”
DiLuzio noted that a cosmetologist gets 1,500 hours of training compared to only 600 for a police officer.
Mary Smith claims there are “different laws for different races.” Her grandson (half Spanish, half black) went with five white friends to McDonalds. She said Bethlehem police pulled the car over and let the five white boys go. But she had to pick up her grandson. “Why can’t you just treat them the same?” she asked.
As the evening ended, Esther Lee said “every child has a right to education and should not end up in prison or murdered just because he didn’t know which way to put his hands.”
Earlier in the forum, DiLuzio said there are officers who tutor kids, conduct coat drives and buy Christmas presents. Recently, officers provided back-packs for less fortunate students with money provided by citizens, businesses and the cops themselves. Lorna Velazquez, who runs the Hispanic Center on the Southside, said that the “police presence is very positive” at South Terrace. “There are so many great things going on in the community, it is hard to know it all,” she added.