Under J. Edgar Hoover, the agency’s inaugural director, African Americans were hounded, targeted, discriminated against and treated with contempt. In the minds of many Blacks, little has changed over the years and the FBI is still considered “the enemy” or at least, “not a friend.”
Hoping to adjust that theory, the Rev. Dr. Damali Najuma Smith-Pollard invited FBI execs in Southern California to discuss the Bureau’s interactions with minorities. The conversation, which was broadcast live via Zoom and Facebook, enlightened viewers about the changes and plans of the country’s most well-known law enforcement arm.
Smith-Pollard, who serves as program manager of USC’s Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement, moderated the session entitled, “Faith Leadership Engagement with the FBI” on April 21. The presentation was part of the Critical Conversations series sponsored by university’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
The participants were the Rev. Gregory Sanders, pastor of The Rock Christian Fellowship in Long Beach and president of the Long Beach Ministers Alliance; Christy Johnson, newly appointed assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office and 21-years veteran of the agency; George Boykins, a supervisory special agent who joined the FBI in 2009 and oversees their Violent Crimes Squad in Orange County; and Sal Tamburrino, supervisory special agent of the Civil Rights Program in the FBI’s L.A. field office.
Explaining how the session came about, Smith-Pollard said, “In 2020, myself, Pastor Greg Sanders and Agent George Boykins began talks around the faith-based community and the FBI and what were ways we could engage with one another to improve and strengthen communication with the wider L.A. community.
“We know that historically, the community and FBI do not have the best relationship. But we do believe that we’re in a time where we can collectively turn the page and look at new ways of building relationships and strengthening together.”
Smith-Pollard, who is also the founding pastor of Word of Encouragement Community Church in L.A., asked the panelists, “What is the FBI’s role and commitment to local communities in building this bridge to communication?”
Johnson replied, “My number one role is to make sure we are engaging in sessions like this. I want to thank Najuma and Pastor Sanders for the work you are doing in the community. People like you two help connect us to communities we need to be talking to.
“Before I respond, I want to comment about yesterday’s outcome (the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial). I want to say it makes us all hopeful, yet it reminds us of all of the work that we need to continue to do with our partners in law enforcement and with you (the community). It is a critical moment in history for all of us. George Floyd’s death is a stark reminder that we must continue this work…to ensure the safety of our communities. That is what we signed up for – that is our job.
“The L.A. field office covers seven counties. Our commitment is to reach out with our resources to engage in impactful conversations, educating people on crimes so we can prevent them, and making sure everybody understands our role in the criminal justice system. We are actually adjusting our strategy across the entire FBI to make sure we aren’t just hitting the conversations in the community that we’re comfortable with and used to…so that I can apply our resources to the right matters,” Johnson said.
Admitting he was all about “connecting law enforcement with community,” Boykins said, “My role in the FBI is specific to violent crimes, which includes gang and narcotic investigations, organized crime, crimes against children, bank robberies, kidnappings, you name it. If it presents itself as violence, we will address it. We work lockstep with other law enforcement offices everyday.” He noted that the FBI’s goal is “to provide safety for the community.”
“My passion was born out of grass roots community work. My first job out of college was working in a group home with at-risk juvenile males. My life’s work and experience has been centered around community outreach. It’s hard for the FBI to maintain a connection because we’re not as visible. We’re not in a uniform like you see on police officers. Efforts are being made constantly in that area (community outreach).”
Tamburrino remarked, “Bringing us together today is what we need to do. We need to integrate our thoughts to put our children in a better spot.” He also recalled that his passion for civil rights stemmed from viewing the film, “Mississippi Burning,” as a teen.
“I was drawn to the civil rights movement and drawn to the FBI because of the high standards we have to make things better for the community,” he said. “And we’re always working towards innovative strategies to make things better for our organization.
“I have a team of dedicated agents who are responsible for detecting, deterring, investigating and prosecuting hate crimes and color of law violations. My team is passionate and committed to their jobs.”
Outlining his reasons for reaching out to the FBI, Sanders said, “One of the things we recognized, as far as the community in Long Beach, is that we needed a bigger blanket of crime prevention to cover us. My heart is to engage our community’s safety through violence prevention.”
He continued, “We work closely with the LBPD, but some of the issues were in oversight and transparency and trust – the blanket wasn’t big enough, so we were able to work with our FBI office, which gave us a bigger blanket to cover more of the needs of our community’s safety. The FBI is critical in helping us, not only with hate crimes and constitutional violations, but also in oversight and building relational equity with our police department.”
Addressing to what she called “the elephant in the room,” Smith-Pollard said there is a long history of mistrust between the community and the FBI, so she asked, “Why now is it important for the FBI to begin to build bridges and create trust?”
Boykins agreed with Smith-Pollard and said that in light of police brutality protests and Chauvin verdict, it was time to work on connecting law enforcement with the community. “It’s obvious that we’re in a moment that we’re open to doing something different. Now is as pivotal time as ever. Our humanity is at stake if we don’t,” Boykins said. “The faith-based engagement is essential to this mission.”
Regarding the training of agents in diversity issues, Johnson shared that the FBI is prioritizing that area in its recruitment of a range of ethnicities as well as individuals who possess broader experiences and viewpoints. “Every day is a day to continue to build mutual understanding. We’re getting much better in having the difficult conversations.”
As the session concluded, Smith-Pollard acknowledged the contributions of Martice D. Hawkins, who performs community outreach for the FBI’s L.A. field office and plays a critical role in linking the agency with community leaders. Urging the audience to reach out to the agency, Smith-Pollard added, “We hope to build trust, without forgetting,” said Smith-Pollard. “Please engage with our FBI.”