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Police and Community Advocate for Local, Diverse Police Force

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Police and Community Advocate for Local, Diverse Police ForcePhoto via People's Justice Project.
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On May 17, the Columbus Foundation held a day of community conversation, dubbed The Big Table. Around the city, hundreds hosted and participated in these conversations, some open-ended, and some targeting specific issues and ideas relevant to community connectivity and growth. At Columbus Underground, we hosted three of our own Big Table discussions, bringing together neighborhood activists, leaders, decision makers, and stakeholders to get a better understanding of food insecurity, community-police relations, gentrification and economic segregation.

The goal wasn’t to solve each problem in one hour-long talk fueled by donuts and Peanut M&Ms. Rather, it was to get people on all sides of the problem in one room, introduce them, and see what comes of it. And, while each meeting consisted of different people addressing a different problem, a commonality existed among them: everyone gained a new perspective and broadened their network, linking more minds into the city’s collective consciousness.

Community-Police Relations

People should trust the police officers that patrol their neighborhoods, but for minority communities, that isn’t always the case. With the fairly recent police shootings of Henry Green and Tyre King very fresh in the minds of residents, as well as the notable nationwide police killings of minorities that have gotten media coverage over the last five years, people have expressed feeling fear rather than security in the presence of law enforcement.

For CU’s discussion, we managed to convene a handful of concerned citizens and activists, as well as a Columbus Police Officer, who worked through the factors and ongoing problems that are contributing to the distrust, as well as potential ways to address it.

Among the biggest concerns: police should be familiar with, and even potentially live in, the communities they patrol.

James Ragland, self-described as a “small business owner, community activist, budding politician, parent, and lifelong Columbus resident,” stressed the importance of familiarizing a community with their patrolling officers. Not only does it give communities a person, rather than a uniform, to relate to — it can mitigate implicit bias, humanizing people that police officers might have simply seen as criminals otherwise.

Currently, police officers can live anywhere. Of Columbus’ 1,900 police officers, just 400 live within city limits, and they probably don’t live in their assigned patrolling area. To change that,
our Big Table talk came up with a range of ideas, some of which have their unfortunate limitations.

The police department could mandate that, in order to serve, an officer must reside within city limits. This policy would have to come from higher up in the state legislature, but it isn’t a high priority in the state’s endeavor to mend community-police relations. If it did become policy, it’d have to be grandfathered in anyway, as the department wouldn’t be able to force 1,500 of its employees to pick up and relocate. It could only apply to new recruits, meaning it would take years before the effects of this policy were even seen.

On the other hand, departments could incentivize its officers to move to Columbus. By offering cheap houses and funds to rehab them, officers could move to the city of their own volition. Columbus Patrol Deputy Chief Tom Quinlan said the only problem with this idea is funding. The city doesn’t have the money it takes to incentivize all of those police officers.

Quinlan’s suggestion approached the problem from the other side, as he wants to get the community’s youth interested in a career in law enforcement. The department hosts summer camps for “troubled teens, teens that are either going to go the wrong way in life or they can be salvaged and make better choices.” The program acquaints community youth with police officers, allowing them to see a person behind the uniform. The hope is that, when the teen encounters an officer on the street, they’ll feel more comfortable and be able to have an appropriate interaction.

614 Unity Co-Founder Evette Langston didn’t wholly agree. By the age of 14 — the targeted age for these programs — a person has likely already had a first police encounter, and has already made up their mind if they trust or distrust police. That being the case, Langston proposed these camps start earlier, when kids are in elementary school.

Quinlan said the ideal is catching people very young, getting them interested in a law enforcement career, and building a diverse and locally-based police force. There are barriers, the biggest being the lack of childcare for aspiring officers who are single parents. Once they complete the course, “reality sets in,” Quinlan said. A person could get assigned to work second or third shift, meaning their children are sleeping or gone when they’re home, and at home with no care when they’re patrolling. This leads many highly qualified female officers to quit.

If the department can catch people young and ensure they have support when they enter the force, the city might start to see a police force that better reflects and relates to Columbus communities.

It wouldn’t eliminate every violent encounter between the police and the policed. Quinlan said that the nature of the job regularly opens officers up to violent situations. He described a common misunderstanding that happens, where an officer might approach someone for information on a crime that recently took place nearby, but the person interprets it differently. Rather than having a conversation and going on their way, people tend to run. The officer’s common mistake, then, is chasing the individual, believing that if they’re running, a crime must have been committed. This can result in a person being tackled and harmed when they did nothing wrong to begin with.

Creating a local and diverse police force is one solution to a multifaceted problem. Implicit bias also plays a big role, and it’s something that, itself, will require more than one solution. Building the dream police department won’t make every citizen’s encounter with the police a peaceful and productive experience, but it will better ensure that the peacefulness of the encounter doesn’t depend on their neighborhood of residence or the color of their skin.

To read about our Big Table talk on food insecurity, click here.

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