Build bridges with community and police

asked Rodriguez

asked Rodriguez

It seems like every week there’s a new viral video showing law enforcement applying force onto a Black man. Last week, the viral video came from Asheville. In pre-2020 fashion, the System seems to have signed, sealed-shut, and case-closed the actions of law enforcement officers captured on video. Nothing to see here folks. The community mobilized in protest, not because there was clear-cut malfeasance, but because there was no discussion to be had.

This is a recurring story. One that has become part and party to the growing desensitized norms. Adverse community experiences dominate the media, which fosters distrust and burns bridges between law enforcement and the communities they police. Every new incident traumatizes the community once again. After the beating of local resident Johnnie Rush in 2017 by overly-aggressive officers, the conversations went from rage to a resigned imploring of local law enforcement to address the problem. What needs to happen to fix this?

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In 2018, as the commissioner of the Human Relations Commission, I presented an idea to the commission to create an implicit bias class for local police as a way to address bias-based reactions in the field. My suggestion was dismissed. The urgency of such a class became ever more apparent to me after the uprisings of 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

In 2021, I met Shawn Freeman who was the Black Mountain Chief of Police. I presented him with the concept of an implicit bias training for police that included the community, to build bridges and heal divides. In that meeting, we outlined the foundation of a community/law enforcement debias training.

I then went on a fact-finding mission to understand the perspectives of law enforcement. The more I learned, the more I felt compassion for the heavy responsibilities placed on the police. They had a difficult, if not impossible job, at times. Just as the community rightly lacked trust for the police, the police had lost trust for the community.

In my quest to understand all sides of this issue, I attended a police de-escalation class, in which I was the only civilian. I spoke with numerous experts on the subject. I went on a ride-along with the APD. I requested the implicit bias curriculum taught by the state of North Carolina. The more I delved into what the police were taught, the clearer it all became. The focus was on the perceived problem. Not the solution.

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The title of the course became self-evident: Civility Training.

In 2022, we launched our first Civility Training class through the Buncombe County Justice Services. Chief Freeman and I co-facilitated three pilot classes. We utilized the feedback from the classes to evolve the curriculum into something that worked for the community and the police.

Upon completion of the pilot classes, we reached out to the Asheville Police Department. The goal: to run the entire department through the course, alongside the community they serve. To achieve this goal, we collaborated directly with APD leadership, removing all charged language from the program to achieve complete neutrality. In January 2023, we launched our first official Civility Training class sponsored by the City of Asheville, supported by APD.

Community members and law enforcement officers who attended Civility Training have expressed deep gratitude for the experience. Finally something is being done to mend the divide between APD and the community. Everyone’s humanity was recognized — honored, even. There are no sides in Civility Training. We center equality in the room. We are all there to grow together in empowered collaboration, which builds the relationships and trust necessary to work together towards solutions.

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Which brings us back to the issue at hand. When the people who make up the system shut down necessary dialogue, that promotes distrust from the community. One way to heal the divide is to accept that there needs to be hard conversations and efforts, put forth by everyone, in a setting where our humanity is centered. Understanding and empathy is earned through trust in both directions.

This is the essence of what Civility Training is all about — joining together with shared community goals, not in bypassing behavior or through unquestioning compliance, but rather by creating solutions together so that everyone can get home safe at the end of the day.

It’s time to solve this problem. But there needs to be a full buy-in from everyone for this to happen.

To request more information on Civility Training, email [email protected].

Tanya Rodriguez is Executive Director, National Institute for Racial Equity, Former Commission Chair, Human Relations Commission City of Asheville, Educator, NC Notary

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Opinion: Civility Training builds of law enforcement in Asheville