For Better Police-Community Relations, Listen

Police-community relations is a sensitive topic, racially charged, critical to individuals’ feelings of safety and belonging in any diverse and crime-challenged community. I wouldn’t say the crime or relations situations in Takoma Park and Silver Spring are bad, but community members do have well-founded concerns about police interactions, particularly those that involve minority youth. What can the City of Takoma Park and the community do to improve relations here? Takoma Park Councilmember Terry Seamens has long pushed for police involvement in city recreation programs, and Mayor Kate Stewart, as a councilmember, promoted city funding for police-community relations consulting, currently pending. Many community members have advocated meaningful community oriented policing (COP). I’ll say only that public and police understandings of COP seem to differ.

Charleston Illumination Project

Given this backdrop, I was intrigued by the Charleston (South Carolina) Illumination Project, which I learned about during a spring break vacation visit. According to the project Web site,

“The City of Charleston began a year-long project to further strengthen relationships between the citizens and police by respecting the importance of Public Safety and Individual Rights… We all want and benefit from a respectful relationship between the police and the communities they serve. We are seeking your voice to help create a plan that will help insure greater teamwork and the long-term success of our communities.”

Illumination and mutual respect are essential, as is the focus on teamwork. The project includes a series of police listening sessions:

“We are looking for your hopes, concerns and plans to build open and long-lasting relationships between the police and the citizens they serve.”

“We” is a foundation called the Charleston Police Fund. It’s unclear when the fund was founded, but I’ll note certain special circumstances in Charleston and nearby: Last June’s Mother Emanuel (the Emanuel AME Church) murder of nine worshipers and the April 2015 fatal shooting, by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., of an apparently unarmed man, Walter Scott, after a scuffle following a traffic stop. Incidents of this sort don’t just happen; they’re the product of circumstances that foster violent, hateful, racist responses to differences.

Fortunately, we’ve had nothing like these incidents in Montgomery County. Our local governments have worked to avoid them. Also locally, Safe Silver Spring, a community initiative, has contributed to community-police understanding.

The City of Takoma Park issued and then reissued a request for proposals for a police-community relations consultant. The proposal deadline was January 28, but I understand that the city did not receive a strong response. Puzzling.

Regardless, the city could and should conduct listening sessions like Charleston’s, actively promoted and moderated by an independent facilitator. These community relations sessions would complement the neighborhood crime meetings the police department participates in. You don’t need a consultant to tell you that people like to be asked their views and to be heard. There is no better way to start learning than to listen.

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