During a demonstration at the police department, 4-year-old Landon Wilkins raised his hand and asked Garner police Chief Brandon Zuidema, “Are police officers bad guys?”
Zuidema looked at the boy and in a reassuring voice said, “No. Police officers are good guys. Police officers try to do the right thing, and you can trust them.”
The question was one that some – particularly in miniority communities – around the country have been asking, especially within the last couple of weeks, as two recent officer-involved shootings of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana made national headlines, encouraging protests against racial injustices.
A day later, five Dallas police officers were killed by a lone gunman, as some officers posed for photos with and watched over protestors.
According to Dallas police Chief David Brown, the shooting was racially charged. He said the gunman said he was bothered by the recent killings, as well as the Black Lives Matter Movement.
The violent week sparked conversations nationwide on how to best address the differences in opinions black communities and many police departments have about how black communities are being policed.
In Garner, a town of nearly 28,000, those conversations have not had to take place. Since the shootings in Dallas, many people have shared their support for the Garner Police Department, whether providing lunch to officers, sending emails, talking with them, or posting a sign on the Police Department lawn thanking them.
However, the Garner Police Department has continued its effort to engage the community and continue the positive interactions it has with its residents in hopes that a situation like that won’t arise here.
On Wednesday, officers hosted another Junior Officer of the Day event where about seven childern got a chance to learn what it was like to be an officer.
Officers taught the children about the proper procedures of a traffic stop and how an officer should approach someone they have pulled over.
“You can’t treat everybody like they are a bad guy,” Sgt. Chris Adams told the children. “Treat everybody like you want to be treated, right?”
The children also toured the facility, saw K-9s in action, went on a pretend SWAT mission and learned how detectives use evidence to solve cases.
The Junior Officer of the Day program was designed to show people what the police department is about and the positive that happens in the community.
Guillermo Ahumada, whose son was one of the junior officers, said he recognizes the efforts the police department has taken.
“I don’t personally believe we have those issues in Garner,” Ahumada said. “I think we work really hard as a community, to take care of whatever issues come up. But I really believe that if everybody was a little more involved in their communities, in their churches, in their civic communities, Civitan, Boy Scouts, Rotary International, we’d all be in a better place.”
‘Work to do’
Zuidema said the recent events have been overwhelming. He said it has added concern among many police officers, including those in his department.
“It’s disconcerting because we’ve got to do better as law enforcement,” he said. “We’re people. We’re going to make mistakes, but we’ve got to continue to work to minimize those mistakes, particularly when it involves life or death situations. But I will also repeat and can’t emphasize enough that reacting with violence does not make it better. It makes it worse.
“And triggering violence against anyone including the police is not good for our society.”
Zuidema said there is no reason to believe that anything like that would happen in Garner. But there is also no reason to believe it won’t happen, he said.
“Because Dallas is a good police department,” Zuidema said. “Dallas is a good community. They have a very good chief of police and police officers who try to do the right thing. And I don’t think there was anything particularly in Dallas that triggered that event other than a public gathering and opportunity. And that can happen anywhere including Garner, North Carolina. So we’ve got to continue to work on that.”
Zuidema said he has talked with his officers and sent emails requesting they continue to treat people in a fair manner and exemplify the department’s values of “commitment, integrity and professionalism.”
He said that will make it easier to open up avenues of conversation to talk with minority communities and others who question the police.
But currently the sentiment in Garner has been that they trust their police department.
“We also recognize there is work to do in continuing to build that trust,” Zuidema said. “We’ve earned that trust but that doesn’t mean we get to keep it forever. We’ve got to work every single day that we go out to maintain that trust, to build that trust and to earn it over and over again.”