The comments longtime resident Eunice Lewis made at a community relations meeting with Garner police in October continue to resonate with Chief Brandon Zuidema.
Lewis, who is black, described a time when she called police because someone had stolen property from her home. She said a white police officer who responded to the call stereotyped some neighbors of hers, who ended up not being responsible for the crime.
Police later found out that incident had occurred 20 years ago, but Zuidema said that doesn’t matter.
“That’s her perception,” Zuidema said. “That’s what she believes and that’s what she’s talking to people about. If we don’t talk to people, then we don’t know that.
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“That’s what we tell our cops. They need to keep in mind that every interaction they have with a member of the public may be the only interaction that person ever has with the police. Every one of those interactions is an opportunity to try and do the right thing, to try and treat people fairly and in a consistent manner.”
That kind of dialogue is very much the basis of the police department’s ongoing effort to build positive relationships with the people it serves.
The Oct. 4 panel discussion Lewis attended was more of an invite-only gathering of local organizational leaders. Police plan to hold follow-up meetings with attendees who showed interest and the groups they represent over the next couple months.
At meetings set for Tuesday, Dec. 12 at noon and Thursday, Dec. 15 at 6 p.m., police are hoping to attract other people they haven’t already heard from.
“That October meeting, our goal was to go back to those leaders and invite us back to those groups so we can (reach) more people,” said Capt. Joe Binns. “(Next week) is open to the general population, people we serve. It could be whoever has an input into how we operate.”
Zuidema wants to hear more than just words of commendation for his squad.
“What we’re honestly looking for is not the group hug, because I can go out and find people who like the Garner Police Department,” Zuidema said. “We’re looking for the folks who maybe aren’t as vocal but aren’t as happy with the police department. We’d really like to talk to them to either address if it’s a misperception or if it’s a truth, and if it’s something we did wrong or could have done better, we’d like to talk about that.”
The department’s outreach is in part a response to one of the six pillars identified in the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
The fourth pillar addresses community policing, a concept Zuidema believes in strongly.
“If you start with a level of trust, it’s like any relationship. It just makes it easier,” he said. “If you assume the best, then you can work from there. But if you assume the worst, that’s a rough place to start any kind of relationship.”
The initiative is also intended to show people that while there has been struggle in the country between residents and police in recent times, Garner police are taking proactive steps to form those better relationships.
“We have to overcome the negative perceptions in our own communities, even though we don’t necessarily have negative interactions with those people,” Binns said. “We need to build that trust with them.”
Zuidema said that’s why the department is focusing on transparency and openness with the public.
One of the department’s goal, he said, is to educate the public and answer their questions on police affairs.
“Sometimes, we may just agree to disagree. We do that internally. We’re adults, it happens,” Zuidema said. “But we try to communicate particularly with the community not just what are we doing, but more importantly why are we doing it. Don’t have to like it, don’t have to agree with it, but you deserve to understand why. I think most people that understand the ‘why’ can take a step back appreciate it. We, police in general, have not always been great about that.”
The department plans to continue reaching out to residents using letters and social media to invite them to more community meetings.
A Duke University study is helping the department in its quest to open lines of communication with people it hasn’t already reached.
“They’re in the process of helping us craft some different letters that will probably go out after the first of the year to a whole new slew of people,” Zuidema said.
There are obvious challenges, Zuidema said, in getting people engaged with police – or town government in general.
People have good reason to attend a board meeting, he said, if something is wrong in their neighborhood, but would have less reason to do so otherwise.
As for police, Zuidema said the nature of the job lends itself to fewer positive interactions.
“There’s inherently an adversarial relationship, to some extent, because we potentially take away your rights, the thing you cherish the most,” he said. “So that inherently makes some people not fans of the police. So you have to kind of evaluate that and weigh that against the good that we do.”
As far as gauging the success of the department’s outreach, Zuidema said it will come down to who responds and what kinds of issues they bring to the table.
“You base it around people who are willing to come in and address concerns and have true, open, constructive conversation,” he said. “Part of success is getting more people enrolled in our citizens academy, more people willing to be part of the solution.”