Our hearts were broken as we learned the tragic news out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As this news broke, four members of the Racine Police Department were returning to Racine after attending several funerals for our fallen colleagues in Dallas. Closer to home, we mourned the line of duty death of Town of Salem Officer Michael Ventura.
While dealing with multiple tragedies, local officers were confronted with the issue of police-community relations following the posting of incendiary content by an appointed member of the Police and Fire Commission. As we work to move past this major distraction, the issue of strained police-community relations remains.
In Racine, police officers enjoy a level of support that is unmatched. The respect and appreciation we enjoy locally is the byproduct of years of police-community engagement. While officers are respected locally, the sad reality is, our profession remains under attack.
Through various mediums, citizens are regularly fed a steady diet of anti-police rhetoric, placing officers in harm’s way. Such negative portrayal of the profession as a whole makes an already difficult job nearly impossible. In the digital age of social media, the widespread, unvetted, real-time dissemination of viral videos or other provocative content threatens the fact-finding process and the pursuit of long-term justice. Uninformed, vitriolic or hateful online posts provide fuel to an inflamed discourse that needs no additional oxygen.
Those of us who are entrusted with leadership positions (public or private) have a higher obligation, if not a higher calling to do no harm as we seek to achieve the greater good. Leaders must also demonstrate courage as we strive to address the sensitive and complex issues we currently face as a nation. Issues involving race relations must be handled with discernment and extreme care.
As we pursue this opportunity to engage in open and earnest dialogue, we must avoid the tendency to retreat from difficult conversations. For example, the Trayvon Martin case is often a difficult topic to discuss, as this case is viewed very differently within different communities. Upon being named chief in 2012, I was invited to speak at a local forum where the Martin case was front and center.
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During the discourse, a young man asked me why police officers use such powerful flashlights to peer into vehicles during traffic stops. My response was short and direct. Officers simply want to go home to their families at the end of each shift. This was an explanation the young man understood, accepted and appreciated. My answer provided context he never considered.
I viewed my participation in this forum as a unique opportunity to inform, and to become informed. During this exchange, I shared the sobering news that the National Law Enforcement Memorial bears the names of over 20,000 officers who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty (12 of whom served the residents of Racine). This information is not widely disseminated on social media, so many are unaware of this unfortunate reality.
In listening to the young voices back in 2012, I realized more work was needed to build rapport and trust with area youth. We now have weekly group meetings between police officers and area youth (developed by COP Officer Bryant Petersen), sponsorship of a local youth boxing club, continuation of the school-based the Police Pals mentoring program, a new Police Pals recording studio, and other youth outreach initiatives. We listened to the young voices of our community and we responded with specific action items.
While police-community relations are strong locally, the national narrative is sadly much different. High profile cases involving the deaths of Walter Scott, Sandra Bland and others have pushed race relations to a boiling point.
Due to the uniform I wear, in some circles, I am pre-judged. Due to the fact my son may be viewed as suspicious by someone with a worldview shared by George Zimmerman, there are yet places in America where he will be pre-judged. Neither scenario is acceptable.
In the face of this reality, we can work together to bridge the gap or the divide will be deepened.
Our nation is at a crossroads. The question is, as a community, which direction will we chose. Will we retreat to our neutral corners or will we seek common ground? United we stand, divided, we fall.
To the greater community, the support and encouragement extended to the men and women who serve our community is greatly appreciated. As we move forward, I encourage those of us in leadership positions to join me and others in moving our community forward together.
Art Howell is Racine chief of police.