Police, city workers and neighborhood volunteers gathered Tuesday morning to clean up a mini-park just south of downtown, two blocks from where Akiel Denkins was fatally shot by a senior officer in late February.
The clearing away of vines and fallen branches at Bragg Street Mini Park marks an ongoing reconciliation between the police department and residents of the South Park community where protests, vigils and marches took place after the shooting.
About a half-dozen parks and recreation employees arrived at the corner of Bragg and Person streets at 7:30 a.m. to cut down English ivy and branches from a stand of trees that had overtaken a 12-foot chain-link fence in the rear of the little park. Two hours later, they were joined by police officers who started foot patrols in the community last month at the behest of residents, who said they wanted to improve the neighborhood’s relationship with the police department.
One volunteer, Reginald Stepney, pastor of Fulfilled Promise Tabernacle on nearby Bledsoe Street, said it has “been a while” since people saw officers in the neighborhood for reasons other than enforcing the law.
“Many times in the community, they are seen as a foe, not a friend,” Stepney said. “This is an effort to remove that perception, a step in the right direction. They are putting their hands where their mouth is. Actions speak louder than words.”
The officers used pitchforks and shovels to load leaves, branches and brambles into wheelbarrows as temperatures rose into the 80s Tuesday morning.
Master Officer S.T. Henry’s dark sunglasses were perched atop of his forehead, his service weapon holstered and radio silent as he used a shovel to scoop mounds of vegetation into an orange wheelbarrow. Henry stopped and used the back of his gloved hand to wipe sweat from his face.
“Yardwork is yardwork,” he said. “I just finished mine this weekend.”
Ashley Deans, a manager with parks and recreation who supervises volunteer projects in parks throughout the city, said nearly 10 officers had helped with the clean-up. She described the day’s activity as an opportunity for police officers to give back to the community and to get residents involved.
“There’s always an impact,” Deans said. “One small thing can lead to a bigger thing.”
Capt. Justin Matthews, commander of the police department’s downtown district, which includes Bragg Street, said the clean-up project is part of an effort to “get back to the basics” after the tensions raised by the Denkins shooting. Matthews started assigning more officers to get out of their patrol cars, walk in the community and interact more with people who live there.
“Get to know the community and let the community get to know you,” he said. “That’s what it’s about. Police officers are part of the community. It’s about being a neighbor and helping each other out. It’s about connecting people together.”
As the officers worked, James Jones, who lives in a small, wood-frame house near the park, was getting his three young grandchildren, the oldest in second grade, ready for a trip to Pullen Park. Jones says he takes his grandkids to the Bragg Street park every now and then.
“I take them early in the morning,” he said. “After 9 o’clock, it fills up and all you hear is cussing. I don’t want my grandchildren around that.”