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Police chief, sheriff share their responses to George Floyd killing

NATCHEZ — Natchez Police Chief Walter Armstrong said he was shocked when he first saw a video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck as Floyd said he could not breathe.

“I’ve seen shootings before by law enforcement officers, justifiable shootings,” Armstrong said. “I’ve seen any number of arrests that I have been part of, but never have I seen what I saw over 10 or 11 days ago with George Floyd. It was very shocking.”

Video of the officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck went viral on the internet and sparked nationwide protests, including peaceful protests and a Day of Mourning proclamation in Natchez last week.

Armstrong said video of the Floyd incident was the first time in his long law enforcement career that he has witnessed a law enforcement officer abuse his authority in such a manner while being recorded.

“It became quite apparent that he had bad intentions in as much as it was very clear that George Floyd was already restrained,” Armstrong said. “It is our duty (as law enforcement officers) to use the amount of legal force to secure an individual and once that has been done our mission has been accomplished.”

Armstrong said it was clear in the video that Floyd had surrendered long before he was released and if he had been released sooner, he might have survived.

Adams County Sheriff Travis Patten said he, too, was disturbed by the Floyd incident.

“My first thoughts were that no officers should do that to a human being ever,” Patten said of his first viewing of the Floyd video. “It made me concerned with everything that happened with the Colin Kapernick situation, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and now with George Floyd, I just felt like the country was about to erupt and all the progress that was made by law enforcement nationwide just got set back 30 years.”

Patten said the ensuing protests to the incident, including local protests and events to mourn Floyd’s death, are understandable even if Natchez and Adams County do not have a law enforcement problem to the extent of what was evidenced in the Floyd video.

Patten said local law enforcement authorities have taken steps to help prevent such an action from happening in Adams County.

Patten said upon his first taking office as Adams County Sheriff in 2016, he took steps to make the sheriff’s office more in line with the demographics of the community.

“My first steps right out of the gate were to have ethics and diversity training at the sheriff’s office,” Patten said. “The second thing I wanted to do as people who did not have the vision of the sheriff’s office either moved on or were let go, we wanted to bring in a demographic of the people who reflected the community that we served as we hired new people on. We wanted to make sure that we hired people who were like-minded and who truly had a heart for this community.”

The next step, Patten said is for the sheriff’s office personnel to undergo diversity training.

“We are going to bring the FBI in and have them do a racial bias training for us,” Patten said.

Likewise, Armstrong said he had the FBI come into the Natchez Police Department recently to teach diversity training.

“They went through it last year with the FBI teaching a class,” Armstrong said, adding that he had implemented a similar program when he was chief of police in Vicksburg before moving to Natchez.

Armstrong noted, too, that he has gotten body cameras for all of his officers.

“What we want to do is to be able to capture every encounter that law enforcement here in Natchez have with the public, the good, bad and indifferent,” Armstrong said. “I constantly tell these officers that I will not tolerate abusing the public, not one second.”

Patten said another program he has implemented in the sheriff’s office is “de-escalation.”

“Rather than to meet people with force we try to build a rapport with them immediately and try to get them to calm down where we can talk through a situation rather than to use force to bring that situation under control,” Patten said.

Patten also said upon becoming Adams County’s sheriff he went into the community to build relationships.

“We immediately started going into the schools, reaching out to different community leaders, to the churches, making sure we had a good relationship established with the media where we were being transparent and honest with people to relieve some of the pressure off of what had already been applied,” Patten said.

Armstrong said he sees the Floyd reaction as an opportunity to bring a message to the community.

“While we have got the attention of everybody, let’s use this as an opportunity to say that any unnecessary death inflicted upon another human’s life is uncalled for and should not go unnoticed,” Armstrong said in reference to a spate of local murders that killed 12 people in Natchez in 2018. “I’m hoping this could be a springboard to bigger concerns and address other type situations along those lines which involves the death of someone.”

Patten said he believes Natchez and Adams County are further along in race relations than some other parts of the nation.

“Everything that happened nationwide is terrible, true enough, but when you really sit back and look at the make up of the City of Natchez, the County of Adams, I want to remind people that we have gone from the slave trading capital of the state to where the ancestors of slaves are now in leadership roles in this community,” Patten said. “It took more than black people to do that. It took black, white, brown, yellow — people from all over this community to entrust the leadership we have in place.”

Patten noted that currently many of Adams County’s leadership, including the Natchez Mayor, Adams County Sheriff, Adams County District Attorney, a circuit court judge, the county prosecutor and a majority of Natchez aldermen and Adams County supervisors, are black.

“What other places are trying to get to, Adams County and the City of Natchez have already reached with diversified leadership,” Patten said, adding that protest is good for bringing attention to situations but he does not believe Adams County has such a problem. “There are issues with the local law enforcement that do need to be addressed but for the most part, protesting is good to bring attention and awareness to a situation.”

Patten said rather than protests, he would like to see Adams County hold a series of town hall style meetings to allow citizens to address concerns.

“We need to have people from all over, people from different sectors of this community, meet in a town hall, have planned breakout sessions after we hear the concerns of the community, then come back in this series and implement an effective plan for change with a realistic goal to set,” Patten said. “It is fine and it is OK and people have a right to get out there and protest but again, we have grown, we have already passed that here in Adams County and it is time to put feet to action here.”

Patten said he would consider spearheading such a series of meetings.

“I don’t want it just to come from the elected leaders, though,” Patten said. “I want the community to be involved in it as well because that is how we got here is by people not listening to the community. While I’m allowed to have this platform I’m going to use it not just fighting injustice but we are fighting for equality for everyone as well.”