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Forum on community policing— Safety over force is favored

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There was remarkable similarity between what the 70 villagers who attended a local policing forum last week said and what 50 anonymous respondents said about policing in the weeks preceding the forum. The overriding themes emerging from both groups were a desire for peace-keeping, mediation, restorative justice, demilitarization, and active police engagement with Yellow Springs residents, especially the local youth.

One forum participant summed up his local policing needs in one sentence: “I’d like our officers to be known as safety officers rather than enforcement officers.”

Last week’s forum was sponsored by the Village Human Relations Commission and held at the Bryan Center on Thursday, Oct. 23. The goal was to elicit from a broad range of villagers what local residents want in their local police department and the next Yellow Springs police chief, expected to be hired sometime in mid-December.

The age diversity of participants in the room was visible, from young parents with babies to Yellow Springs High School and Antioch College students to elders in their 80s. The group also included a mix of African-American and Caucasian participants, as well as a relatively equal number of males and females.

At the start, the group divided into six smaller feedback circles, with Village mediators facilitating the main solicitation portion. When the big group reconvened, it became clear that each of the circles had arrived independently at very similar feedback. What they reported back to the larger group was categorized loosely into 1) what qualities villagers want in their local police officers, 2) what qualities villagers want in the next police chief, and 3) what are the community values that define these responses.

For local police officers, many groups reported back that they wanted police to engage in restorative justice and education rather than “surveillance,” intimidation and punishment. Overwhemingly, participants wanted police to know villagers, and especially teenage youth, by name and to spend the majority of their patrol time out of their vehicles talking to people and educating them about safety. They also said that police officers should embrace diverse cultures, be aware of the dangers of bias and seek to avoid the practice of profiling.

In terms of what forum participants said about their ideal chief, most of the circles agreed that the chief should model for his or her department the same community-engaged, educational, personal and peacekeeping emphasis villagers want in their officers. Many said they wanted a chief who was educated about and open to systems of restorative justice, de-escalation and youth mentoring and would be committed to using “diplomacy before force.” Several groups also said they hoped that the chief would deemphasize the criminalization of drugs, as well as either withdraw from both the SWAT and the county drug task force or “seriously consider re-evaluating” the Village’s participation in both organizations. And one group said they hoped the chief would be transparent with Village Council about the department’s participation in particular programs and the costs associated with such decisions.

Among the community values mentioned were anti-discrimination, neighborliness, locally oriented problem-solving, transparency and youth-centered principles.

As the forum was intended to be the start of a community dialogue, villagers had some suggestions and thoughts about future actions. Villagers John Hempfling and Matt Carson hoped the Village could bring in experts on progressive drug enforcement practices and restorative justice systems to educate both police and the community.

Regarding the search for police chief, Al Schlueter remarked that the village needs a chief who is committed to the community and willing to stay a while. Ellis Jacobs pointed out that the advertised job description for the chief should include some of the qualities mentioned at the forum because “the chief can only be as good as those who apply,” he said. Though the Village has already posted the ad, Bates suggested that the search committee could use the community values to evaluate the candidates and select the finalists.

See the HRC’s own recap of the policing forum in next week’s News.

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