Police Chief Brandon Zuidema hoped the two community meetings his department held last week would result in more than just a group hug.
There were plenty of compliments directed at Zuidema’s squad at the Thursday session at the police department, but most of the open conversation involved police-related questions and concerns by residents.
Concerns, specifically those that people have about interactions with police in recent times, were a big part of what sparked the department’s desire to reach out to its community.
“For a lot of people, if a police officer does something bad, all police officers, unfortunately, are viewed as potentially having done something bad,” Zuidema told the crowd of about 30. “What I think you will find here, in Garner, is that the default is still to trust police, but we know that we have to earn that trust every day, over and over again. This is part of that effort, to make sure we’re answering questions and we’re communicating and we’re taking accountability and responsibility for not just what we do in the community, but also why we do it.”
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The meetings were a continuation of the Oct. 4, by-invite panel discussion between police and local organizational leaders. This time, police opened the meetings to all members of the public, hoping to catch people they hadn’t already met with.
After watching a short video on the Garner Police Department, Zuidema opened the floor for conversation.
“We have no agenda, per se, other than to talk, to get to know each other, to try to build a little bit more trust than maybe we already have, and to essentially prove to you that we are the good guys and that we are here to help you and to work with you and be part of this community,” Zuidema said.
The residents touched on a wide range of topics, including police jurisdiction, presence and interactions, body cameras, texting while driving, drivers licensing, suspicious things they have seen and the best way to report those things going forward.
David Salazar, who is active with Si a Las Licencias, an advocacy group for drivers license issues facing the Latino community in the Triangle area, had met with police several times before Thursday.
Salazar, over the course of the night, was a voice for the local Hispanic community, which was well represented at the meeting.
Translators were present to help convey Zuidema’s responses to some in the audience as Salazar asked for more information on community watch programs and translation services for Spanish-speaking residents who call the department, among others.
He wanted to know where the department stands on immigration law, and Zuidema’s reply was local police do not enforce the statute Salazar referenced.
“We’re going to treat everyone exactly the same,” Zuidema said. “We don’t deal with people differently based on who they are. We deal with people based on what they do. So if you are a law-abiding person residing in Garner, then we are going to provide public safety and police law enforcement services to you, you’ll be treated fairly just the same as anyone else.”
Salazar also asked Zuidema if he would join him in supporting legislation proposed last year that would help undocumented immigrants obtain restricted drivers permits and IDs. The chief said he would.
“They have some American guys who just don’t have any form of paperwork or can show who they are,” Salazar said after the meeting. “They don’t have enough to where they can go to DMV and get a real drivers license or ID. When (House Bill) 318 was signed into law, the only ID they have over here is the Metricula which is an ID from the Mexican government, and they’ve become no good.”
Salazar was pleased with the response he got from Zuidema and Mayor Ronnie Williams, who told the crowd he was open to meet with anyone at any time to hear their concerns.
“We see a lot of better things for our community – better things than we have seen overall in the county,” Salazar said. “(Zuidema) is very open-minded to recognize our presence here, our work, and that we are here doing good.”
Annette Harris said when she first moved in to her home 16 years ago, there was some drug activity taking place across the street. She said everything from that point onward was calm, until an incident occurred recently near South Garner Park.
“There was an interaction near the park and we don’t know a whole lot about what happened other than people speculating on Nextdoor,” Harris said. “Could we get a greater police presence in that area based on that, for a while, and make sure things go back to the way they were? Also, how can the citizens help?”
Zuidema knew of the event she referred to. He said police are patrolling the area regularly – that the department has officers whose responsibility is to patrol parks on nights and weekends to be a visible crime deterrent, and that some of the department’s sworn officers are also around when people don’t realize they are around.
“Sometimes we want to be seen, and other times we don’t want to be seen,” Zuidema said.
Zuidema encouraged those who haven’t already to join Nextdoor, a free social media network that connects people in neighborhoods.
“Whether it’s about being out of town or a suspicious person or a yard sale, you can share all that information,” he said. “The Town of Garner also offers a number of ways for you to get involved – one of which is our Garner 101 program, which is basically the Town of Garner’s citizens academy. We encourage you after that to do the Garner Police Department’s citizens academy.”
After participating in the police citizens academy, he said people can become members of the department’s Citizens and Police Together team to support police initiatives.
Zuidema also reminded people to simply call 911 if they see something in their neighborhood that seems out of place, but not to wait to pick up the phone.
“When it’s happening,” he said. “When you see it. Yesterday doesn’t help us that much, unless you call yesterday. We need that information when it happens.”
More police and community meetings will be announced at the start of the new year. One is expected to address the topic of body-worn cameras, and other general meetings are planned to follow.