SJR State Academy, local law enforcement observe African-American commemoration with advice to recruits, diversity awareness
"In this field, prejudice can either make you or break you,” said correctional probation supervisor Weldene Vaneps to a room full of criminal justice recruits. There are all kinds of prejudice on both sides of the law enforcement profession, she cautioned - nonetheless, when an ethical recognition of those prejudices is combined with effective communication, lives can be saved. “At the end of the day, it’s about practicing law enforcement with heart and courage," Vaneps said.
The Florida Department of Corrections supervisor was among six guest speakers participating in a panel discussion hosted by the St. Johns River State College Criminal Justice Academy. The discussion, which was part of the College’s year-long celebration honoring a national commemoration of African-American history, provided cadets with the opportunity to hear from local African-American professionals on their career experiences, race relations and the importance of communication, accountability and self-care.
Vaneps continued her candid conversation on diversity and survival, arming the cadets with crucial advice they will need when entering the criminal justice profession.
"People can sense it (prejudice). It gives an odor. You don’t have to say anything,” Vaneps said. “You have to be able to treat people with dignity and respect… regardless of a person’s color, regardless of race, creed or sex. Everyone understands respect in the same way everyone understands disrespect."
As a Black woman, Vaneps said she learned early in her career how the importance of effective communication and professionalism would be her biggest ammunition before any backup could arrive.
“It’s one thing to be strong and to be a warrior, but if you’re not fighting for a good purpose, then all of the department policies and procedures are not going to save you in the actions you take and the actions you are accountable for,” Vaneps said. “Ethics and professionalism have to come from the heart. If you do that, you will get the respect from people you serve.”
Additional panelists sharing career experiences included Palatka Police Chief Jason Shaw, St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Napoleon Staggers, St. Augustine police officer Mikayla Preston and Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels.
Daniels set the tone early in the discussion, prepared to push the cadets outside of their comfort zone using real-world scenarios regarding race relations and forewarning them of the many public perceptions in which they will have no control.
“There are people who don’t like me just because I’m Black,” said Daniels. “There are people who don’t like me because I’m a guy. And, more importantly, there are people who don’t like me just because of the uniform that I wear.”
Daniels explained how distrust in law enforcement is a learned behavior, where many factors - from personal experiences to the environment in which people are raised - can influence an entire community.
“There are people who won’t like you because of the skin color you had no control over,” Daniels said. “And, people will not like you because of the profession you have chosen.”
“It’s life. You can’t get offended,” Daniels continued, advising the cadets to not wear their feelings on their sleeves. “Your peace can’t be breached when you’re wearing this uniform. You’re getting paid to be the professional. You’re getting paid to protect and serve people.”
Chief Shaw followed with a similar message, emphasizing not only the importance of effective communication, but also the importance of investing in the community’s youth. “The only tool you will have is the gift that God gave you - your lips,” Shaw said. “If you can’t talk to a person, you’re going to be in serious trouble.”
“I’ve come in contact with so many children, and I believe in my heart that I’ve done everything I need to do to show that there are good officers out there. I can walk through the Black community and I’m known not only as Chief Shaw, I’m known as Coach Shaw, I’m known as Mr. Shaw, and I’m known as that person in the Black community who happens to be a Black officer and is a good officer.”
During his welcoming comments, SJR State President Joe Pickens shared the College’s role in localizing the national commemoration - the 400 Years of African American History Commission Act – a public law enacted by Congress to recognize and highlight the resilience and contributions of African-Americans since 1619.
“What better institution to recognize this type of historical occasion and educate people about it other than a college,” Pickens said. “We’re excited to bring together these community leaders to talk about their life and work experiences so we can all learn from them. This year-long celebration on the St. Augustine campus is our kickoff, and we’re delighted that Dean Lee thought to have it here, in this context.”
SJR State Criminal Justice Academy Dean Jeff Lee said the Commemoration of 400 Years of African American History was perfect timing for the panel discussion. “I had been thinking about holding a panel discussion on race relations in criminal justice for some time,” Lee said. “When I heard that there was going to be a college-wide celebration, I began planning this event.”
“Our students had a unique opportunity to hear discussions from leaders in the field from our service area. I feel that the inspiring messages will have a tremendous impact on them for years to come, and in due time, many of them will become leaders and inspire new law enforcement officers. I am so thankful that each panel member recognized the importance of this event and was able to take time from their busy schedules to discuss these important topics,” Lee said.
In recognition of Black History Month, CCSO Director of Services Ricky Wright applauded Sheriff Daniels as the first Black sheriff in Clay County, and Chief Shaw as the first Black police chief in Palatka. “That’s history,” Wright said.
Wright concluded the discussion with one final piece of advice on how listening is also a crucial part of communication. “In this profession, you have to learn how to listen. It may save your life or the life of your partner,” Wright said. “It’s great to talk, but it’s better to listen. Sometimes by being silent, you learn a whole lot more.”
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