MANSFIELD -- It was a public forum Monday evening in a room filled with concerned residents, community leaders, elected officials and political candidates.
The topic was the relationship between the Mansfield Police Department and the black community, a topic that flared on Aug. 15 when a car stop of 4th Ward City Council candidate Alomar Davenport resulted in two officers pulling their guns.
During the incident, the officers pulled their guns, though never raised them, when they mistook a silver pen in the console of Davenport's vehicle for the slide of a handgun.
In the packed meeting room, the potential existed for tensions to run high.
But Pastor Aaron Williams Jr. from Maddox Memorial Church of God in Christ in Mansfield set a different tone even before the 90-minute conversation led by Davenport officially began.
"What I would like for us to do is erase the lines in the sand that it seems like all of us may have drawn at some point in time since this incident, so we can come together and talk about the real issue. ... The real issue being can we avoid something worse having happened than what happened here almost two weeks ago," Williams said.
"What we don't want is our (younger residents) coming into a situation like this and losing their cool and then officers feeling threatened doing their jobs, whether they are good officers or bad officers, something tragic happening to the point where there is a loss of life and ... on the other side depression is setting in because they are second-guessing their judgement, their lives and their careers are over as they knew it. I believe all of those things can be diminished here in this forum," Williams said.
What followed was a wide-ranging discussion among Davenport and those in attendance, including his repeated admissions that he was not blameless in the incident.
"This is an issue that is real within our community, that exists in our community, but is rarely ever talked about within our community in a public forum," Davenport said.
Davenport pointed out Mansfield police wanted to participate in the meeting, but were told by the city law director they cannot discuss the car stop while the case is pending in Mansfield Municipal Court.
Davenport was arraigned last week. He has a pre-trial scheduled Sept. 16 and a bench trial, if necessary, is scheduled Oct. 8. Mansfield police Chief Keith Porch has said the department will participate in a public meeting once the case is resolved.
Davenport said he decided to proceed with the meeting, even without police, in an attempt to re-focus the discussion on what he said was the real issue.
"I want to get to the heart of what we're trying to accomplish. I want to build a bridge between the community and police ... to create an opportunity for both sides to learn from the other in order to avoid situations like this," Davenport said.
The 42-year-old Davenport recalled when his cousin was shot and killed during a car stop by Columbus police on Aug. 30, 2006.
"It was the same situation we had here. Officers mistook an object for a gun. My cousin reacted in a different manner ... he ran. He took four steps and was shot in the back. That single shot killed him.
"Whether the person is at fault, whether the cop is at fault, this happens ... this is a real situation that happens among our community and is rarely spoken about," Davenport said.
He said his family just yelled among themselves at the time, blaming police and never had the opportunity to hear from police.
"(When this happens) we get into a silo and stay among ourselves and there is never a real dialogue," Davenport said.
He said the Mansfield officers did what they were trained to do during the car stop.
"That's not the issue. The issue is not their training. The police have a very difficult job. We have to recognize that. They deal with a segment of the population that many of us never come across or deal with. That's what they deal with on a constant basis.
"When they stop someone who looks like someone they arrested two days ago, automatically their thoughts go to, 'Well, he is like that so we have to be prepared.' That's what this forum is supposed to be," Davenport said.
"In all of these situations, neither side is blameless. I am not blameless in what happened. Let's get that clear. I am not above the law."
Davenport said he was on his way from the gym and didn't know where his driver's license was when officers asked to see it.
"I knew it was in the car somewhere, but I didn't know where it was," he said.
Davenport said he felt the officer's heightened sense of urgency. He said he told the officer his name and that he was a councilman-elect to "relax him, bring him back down from the heightened sense he had and to let him know I am not a threat, that I mean him no harm and there was nothing going on."
Davenport said he had a license in his cardholder right now, though he cannot discuss the suspension while his case is pending. Franklin County Municipal Court records show a bench warrant for his arrest was issued on June 21 after he failed to appear or pay fines from being ticketed on May 11 by police for an alleged U-turn and unsafe lane change on North High Street.
Davenport was due in court in Columbus on May 14 and the failure to appear was added on May 22, the same day the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicle records show his license was suspended.
Davenport said he and the officers had reached an impasse.
"Neither of us knew what the other was going do to. That comes with fear. That comes with a lot of our officers having no clue there are different segments in our community. His mind was on the arrest he made such-and-such time ago of the person who looked like me," Davenport said.
"What we're trying to do is go home. The officer wants to go home to his family. The person being stopped wants to go home to his family. That's what this is about."
Davenport said he has since recalled that steel must go into the fire in order to be molded.
"If it means being able to have a conversation with the police and the community and it means this dialogue can produce solutions for how better these situations can be handled in the future ... if it takes me being in the heat (then) bring the heat. I will take the heat because for me this is about my (3-year-old) son.
"I do what I do because I want to provide a life where my son can walk and be safe. ... (Where) I can give my son the keys and not worry if he is going to come home. If that conversation benefits the community, so be it. That's great for the community.
"If this had turned out differently, none of us would be talking about the suspensions or the tickets I got. We would be talking about a dead black man. That's (the conversation) we have to get back to," Davenport said.
"The real issue is we have to provide solutions, we have to provide a dialogue, we have to provide a community where our kids can be safe and where their parents can send them out and feel safe ... that's what this about.
"In a way, it's good it happened this way. I'm in the fire. I am not afraid of that. I can grab a drink of water later on," Davenport said.
After Davenport finished his remarks, many of those in the audience spoke. Almost all spoke in support of Davenport. Many spoke of the need for deescalation efforts when tensions run high.
Some wanted to criticize police and their treatment of blacks, an effort Davenport tried to stop.
"This will not become a police bashing. This is not what this meeting is about. This meeting is not about bashing police. I applaud the officers for their restraint in that situation," he said, adding he had sat down with Porch and watched the car stop video.
"The problem is the seeing of an ink pen as a gun. That comes from fear. That comes from not knowing the community. That comes from 'I arrested someone who looks just like him two days ago and he had a gun. So this car is probably going to have a gun. So when I see a silver thing, there it is, there's a gun, so let's draw ours,'" Davenport said.
Some in the audience, including former local NAACP President Betty Palmer-Harris, spoke about the importance of teaching young people to respect police officers, a respect all agreed should go both ways.
Palmer-Harris, who said she worked for the MPD in the 1960s, said there were good officers and bad officers, "mostly good." She recommended motorists keep their hands on the car steering wheel during a car stop, unless otherwise directed by police, and to never "go looking for something" in the vehicle unless being told to by police.
After the meeting, Davenport said he was satisfied with the conversation.
"In the grand scheme of things, everything will die down. My case will eventually end. But this issue will still be in our community. It's about refocusing back on that and providing a solution," he said.
He also said he welcomed two 4th Ward residents who filed on Monday to run as write-in candidates in November. Davenport, who defeated incumbent Walden "Butch" Jefferson in the April primary, had been unopposed in November.
"This is (election) is about reclaiming our collective voice (in the 4th Ward)," Davenport said. "By having other candidates, this allows our community to really choose who their leadership will be. It's not a matter of, 'Alomar is our councilman because no one else ran.'
"I applaud the two candidates. I am happy someone else came into the race and we will really get the opportunity to use our voice," he said.