Commissioner Christian-Bennett would ‘absolutely’ consider declaring racism a public health crisis


Commissioner Christian-Bennett would ‘absolutely’ consider declaring racism a public health crisis

Portage County Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett also said she would prioritize funding for training in a conversation with The Portager about race and policing


The murder of George Floyd sent shock waves throughout the country and sparked uprisings in several major cities. In its aftermath, conversations on police violence and our country’s ugly history of racism are now more prominent than ever.

Portage County has its own long history of racism, as Roger Di Paolo points out in his latest Spotlight on History column for The Portager.

We reached out to local elected officials, including Portage County Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett, to discuss the county’s funding of the sheriff’s office, police training, Black Lives Matter and the ‘defund the police’ movement.

Below is our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity. Next week, will also be publishing our interview with Commissioner Kathleen Clyde.

So you were mentioning a statutory obligation regarding funding with the sheriff’s office.

Absolutely. Yeah, we’re required by law. We, we have to keep the peace in the county. We can’t say, Oh, sorry, sheriff, you’re going to have to lay all your people off, statutorily. He is required to keep the peace in the county, and in doing so he obviously needs staffing.

And so, depending on what training, if he wants additional training or maybe it’s just a change in policy, if he were to need additional funding, I would feel strong enough with everything going on in the world. That that is a need that we would have to fund. It’s not, Oh, we can’t fund you, you know? Cause it’s a serious enough matter that we would need to find the funding for, although, you know, our funding’s tight because of everything going on with the COVID-19 and stuff, this would be something that I would feel would take a high priority on our funding request.

Regarding everything going on in the world, like you just mentioned in reference to the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and other civil movements currently going on… The phrase ‘Black lives matter,’ is that something that you support?

Well, to be honest, Carter, and I know they hate to hear it — all lives matter. I guess right now it seems like, it’s about what happened with George Floyd and stuff. You have to understand, I’m married to a 39-year police veteran. There’s good cops. There’s bad cops. But one cop, one bad cop, it does not reflect on all the good ones. It’s like in any job, I’m sure you’ve had some good bosses and you’ve had bad bosses. When the issue comes to the forefront, that’s how we need to deal with it. And how I deal with supporting the Black Lives Matter is, first of all, no matter what race, color, nationality, I treat people the same.

I don’t feel that I have to go out and protest daily because you know what, I walk the talk, and what a lot of people don’t realize is my daughter is engaged to an African American. He’s been the best guy to my daughter that she’s ever dated and we love him. And we don’t look at him and see Black, you know?

I was taught to treat everyone how you want to be treated. And so I’m not out there protesting or marching for it, but at the same point in time, it does not mean that I don’t support changes that need to be made, because obviously they’re dealing with issues I have never had to deal with. And how do I learn from that?

I talk to folks in the Black community, whether it’s the pastors, whether it’s different organizations or agencies, to see, that’s my job as a county commissioner. Because in my mind we don’t tend to have a huge race problem. Racism goes on, no matter if it’s Black and white or white and Black, racism goes on every day. You’d be naive to think that there’s no racism at all.

Well, I was born and raised Portage County. I can certainly tell you, it goes on daily.

Where do you see this at? I know it does go on. I’m not stupid — like I had a tenant who moved from Mantua because she had biracial children and they just were not treated very nice through Crestwood schools. So she moved to one of my rentals in Ravenna, and her kids flourished there. And they love it there. So I do, I am aware that it goes on, but where are you seeing it at?

I mean, you see it on on all levels. As you were just saying, discrimination within the schools, you see it within certain housing issues. Obviously, there’s red lining: That was throughout the whole country, but especially in Northeast Ohio. But to backtrack just a second, I just want to make sure I had this right: So you support the new civil rights movement? You’re saying you support the Black Lives Matter movement, but your stance is that all lives matter?

Yeah. And it’s true, whether it’s Black lives, I understand right now that’s at the forefront because what has recently happened, but you know what I mean? I look at people, I don’t necessarily see color on a person because I don’t care if you’re from Vietnam or if you’re from China, I see them as a person, not as a color, a race and nationality. I’m a very spiritual person. So that comes in to play because, you know, we’re all God’s people. And so, like I said, I treat everyone the way I want to be treated, and I raised my kids that way.

In my heart, I cried when I watched that video [of George Floyd’s murder] and I’m like, “Oh my God, how could you as a human?” I mean, there’s a guy down there saying, “I can’t breathe.” I mean, what is wrong with someone that would think that’s OK? It’s no different than the people that abused children and animals and stuff. It’s like, there’s something wrong with someone that thinks abusing others is OK when they’re at your mercy and they’re screaming. I mean, like I said, it makes me tear up even talking about it because I remember seeing the video. It’ll always be etched in my memory now. That’s someone’s son. I’m a mom, I’m thinking, “My God, that’s someone’s son, that’s someone’s father.” I mean, how could you just be so cruel?

It’s really sad, our world’s in a bad state of affairs. I think right now we’re not in a good place, and I have a feeling, Carter, it’s going to get worse before better. And that’s what I’m concerned about. It certainly seems like we are in uncharted waters and regarding that, right. I certainly feel the same way you did about seeing that video.

The Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County declared racism a public health crisis. And there’s talk of a countywide declaration of declaring that a public health crisis. Is that something that you would support?

You know, that that’s interesting that you asked that because I was telling someone the other day about it, and you know, it is something that I would entertain. But I would like to discuss more with my other two colleagues. Because, as you know, we’re a board. But yeah, that would be something I would be interested in considering, most definitely.

So in terms of declaring racism a public health crisis in Portage County, that’s something you would consider and talk with the other board members about?

Absolutely, no question about it.

I wanted to go back to the sheriff’s department, if that’s OK? Cause we didn’t really get a chance to finish talking about that.

With the sheriff’s department, my main thing is: The sheriff has a lot of folks that work out there that are Black, and he treats them fairly and they’ve been there for a long time. Knowing Sheriff Doak, racism is definitely not something that our sheriff would put up with. And I feel confident in saying that. So that gives me some sense of security, as far as those issues going on within our county law enforcement.

And like I said, if the sheriff come to us and said, “You know, I think I need more training,” or “I would like to bring someone in to train on this topic or that topic,” I would definitely be committed to finding those funds, even though funds are going to be a little tight this year because of everything going on with Covid. Some things have to take a precedent, and that would be a priority for me.

So regarding that, with police training, I’ve been doing research into it. Especially with Ohio, the standards here in Ohio really focus heavily on two things: subject control and firearms training. So if Sheriff Doak were to come and say, “We need more training,” would you sort of push back and say, “Well, was this training more firearms and subject control, or is it going to be for deescalation and crisis intervention or non-lethal interventions?” Would that be part of the conversation?

Sheriff Doak is our expert out there. I would certainly trust his recommendations. But saying that, I wouldn’t be afraid to question how this would help the problem, you know? So when you say firearms training, some people may think that that doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on, but then maybe Sheriff Doak convinces us otherwise. He may have a very valid point that we’re not thinking of because we don’t think of that training.

So I feel like we have to definitely take Sheriff Doak’s request seriously, but that means that we also have the right, by all means, to question it. If there was something that we didn’t feel would necessarily be a benefit. Because he may have a very good logical reasoning that we’re not thinking of.

There’s been a lot of talk about the funding of police departments and moving those funds, or at least in part moving those funds, to other programs, such as social services and mental healthcare workers to work in crisis response. I’m wondering what your opinion on that type of thing is: defunding of police to an extent that would move funds to those types of programs.

I honestly think, Carter, it would create a civil war because you have to have some control over the environment and what’s going on. I mean, what’s going to happen when someone’s breaking into your house. There’ll be no one to call, and like I said, I think you have to have some sense of authority so that people do abide by laws. Are we going to do away with all the ordinances and the laws and those communities because no one is going to be there to enforce them? I mean, I don’t think that three or four bad officers reflect the true nature of law enforcement, and I don’t think it’s to the point that we would ever consider defunding the law enforcement, the police.

I definitely see where you’re coming from. But the issue is more than four officers. I mean, there’s been how many police shootings or police killings of civilians over the past year? [Editor’s note: There have been 999 police killings in the past year.] But I definitely also see where you’re coming from with wanting to be able to enact and enforce ordinances in the community.

Because that’s what makes people want to live in communities. That’s what creates good schools, because people feel the area is safe. They want to raise their kids there. And you know what, we don’t talk about the police officers that have been killed during this. [Editor’s note: Far fewer law enforcement officers are shot and killed, and none so far by Black Lives Matter protesters.]

Everyone has the sense that it’s one sided. And like I said, there’s way more good police officers than bad. That’d be like me saying, “Oh, I know such and such bad reporter for a newspaper. So Carter’s just the same.” I mean, you have to look at people as individuals and build your own opinion, but no, I would definitely not be in favor. You have to have some law and order. And I think what we’re learning is obviously there’s more training that needs to be done, as you stated.

I think it’s important that we consider hiring more minority law enforcement people, but not everyone’s white, not everyone’s Black. I mean, I’d like to see some Hispanics because it’s a different culture and if you don’t understand their culture and you don’t take the time to understand their culture, then you’re going to judge them as to what you know. So I agree that we should also look at not only training, but look at hiring more minorities, including females. I mean, I’m a female, I’m a minority business owner. Whether it be females, Hispanics, Blacks, whites, even, you know, Mexicans, which would go under Hispanic.

So would you be in favor of more diversity and cultural sensitivity training in law enforcement agencies in Portage County?

I would, absolutely. I mean, how are we going to overcome this? You got to educate yourself, and if you don’t, shame on you because you work for the people. You know, I’m a Republican. Does that mean I only work for Republican people? No. Once I’m in office, I work for everyone. So it’s no different in law enforcement. You are protecting everyone in your district. So you should know your district. You should know the people that you work for.

Well, those are all the questions I had. If there’s anything we missed or anything that you’d like to talk about or circle back on, the floor is yours.

Just to recap, I’m in support of law enforcement, I’m in support of our sheriff and whatever policies or training that our sheriff comes up with. I would definitely be willing to support and prioritize. The other thing is, I think to overcome some of the racism, I would like more diversity training. And I think the department should look at diversity and hiring. And I know that’s easier said than done because first of all, you’ve got to get diverse people to apply. We didn’t get here overnight and it’s not going to change overnight, but it’s something that we should start looking at going forward.

If we’re not getting diverse people applying, why aren’t we out in the schools? Where we can start talking to them to attract young kids that want to become a police officer. You know, if there’s a will, there’s a way, Carter. So someone can’t say, “Well, we can’t have diversity here cause no one applies.” OK, why are people not applying? Go out into the communities and educate yourself, introduce yourself, tell them what you do besides the only time you see them is in a bad situation. Go out and do some community policing, you know, that’s a good way to start.

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Carter Eugene Adams is a freelance documentary photographer and multimedia journalist based in Ravenna, Ohio. He is a former multimedia contributor for The Portager.

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