ASHTABULA — Officials from the city and the Ashtabula NAACP met on Thursday afternoon to discuss how to improve relations between the city and the African-American community.
The meeting was scheduled last week, after Ashtabula Police Office Aaron McCracken made social media posts about the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.
Floyd died while in police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for an extended period of time. That officer and three others who were on the scene and did not intervene have since been charged with crimes related to Floyd’s death.
“If you can scream you can breathe,” McCracken said in a comment last week, according to a screenshot of a Facebook post. A concerned citizen emailed the Facebook exchange to the Star Beacon. McCracken’s statement was followed by a shrugging emoji.
“Sounds like there was some other medical condition going on with him,” McCracken said in a follow-up comment. “Probably should have been rolled over but I’m not thinking a knee to the back of the neck holding him down killed him. Sounds like he was having a heart attack or something.”
Liz Penna, president of the Ashtabula NAACP, mediated Thursday’s meeting.
During the summit, McCracken apologized for his comments.
“I didn’t realize that comment made it seem like I didn’t care about his life,” he said. “That’s not true. I sincerely apologize for an insensitive comment like that, and hearing you two pastors explain to me how it personally made you feel made me realize how insensitive it really was, and I truly apologize for that.”
Before McCracken apologized, a pair of pastors shared their feelings on McCracken’s comments.
Sharone Sing, pastor of the Grace Christian Assembly, explained why McCracken’s comments were so hurtful.
“It’s a statement that, in a way, can be received that the life wasn’t important, let’s focus on the act,” Sing said. “A lot of that is what attacks a community, attacks a people, is that you don’t care that the person died. You want to focus totally on whether or not he was able to breathe.”
Floyd’s death is not an isolated incident, Sing said. He cited a number of other black men who were killed by law enforcement recently.
“This is the thing that we need to understand, that remarks, words, thoughts, attitudes like that, is what culminates into a place and a point where people end up being killed,” Sing said. “Because if you’re not placing value on something, it’s easy to pull the trigger. It’s easy to keep the knee down. And this is why those kinds of statements and remarks are hurtful, and harmful. It divides a community.”
Emory Moore, pastor of New Hope Church, thanked the organizers for the chance to speak.
“People are tired, and little things to you, as you can see, can blow up to bigger things,” Moore said. “So that’s why we have to be careful about what we say and how we say it, and how we present ourselves.”
Moore mentioned McCracken’s previous employment with the Jefferson Police Department. McCracken resigned after sending inappropriate messages via social media to a village resident.
Police Chief Robert Stell apologized for the comments that McCracken made about Floyd’s death.
“I express to you, right now, my sincerest apologies for what has taken place,” Stell said. “That’s not the message we want to put out there to the public. And we will certainly work hard, and I will work very hard — I’m committed — to make sure that these kinds of things don’t happen in the future, and that we do make a positive change in the police department.”
McCracken will be issuing a public apology, as well.
Penna said she would like to see McCracken to work with the NAACP’s youth group.
“We need diversity in this community,” she said.
From there, the conversation moved to what can be done to improve relations between the city and the African-American community.
One of the first suggestions was increasing diversity in the police department. Moore said he wanted to see changes to the hiring process.
Stell agreed, and added that the department needs to be reflective of the community it serves.
“We’ve tried a lot of different things, and we haven’t been successful, quite frankly,” Stell said. “We definitely need some help. We welcome the diversity in our department.”
The city has been unsuccessful in seeking out minority employees for police jobs in the past, City Manager Jim Timonere said. The city has previously reached out to the NAACP in Ashtabula and surrounding communities for help, he said.
“All of those efforts, we’ve been very unsuccessful having anybody come up and take the test,” he said.
The city has also had trouble retaining minority employees who are offered more lucrative positions, Timonere said.
Stell suggested creating a liaison officer position, similar to an arrangement that Crime Enforcement Agency of Ashtabula County has in place.
“Somebody from the community might have an issue, but they don’t want go directly to the police department, because they’re not comfortable doing that,” Stell said. “So they have somebody they can trust as a go-between, and that might make the lines of communication a little easier. At least that might be a start for us.”
Penna suggested that police officers join the NAACP and come to meetings.