"Building Bridges" event highlights police's strengths, weaknesses in its relations with community
● By Richard Gaw
The year 2014 was a difficult one to be a police officer in the United States.
On July 17, the strangulation death of Eric Garner, a black man, at the hands of Staten Island, N.Y., police quickly became a viral sensation, and on Aug. 9, the shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Mo. by a white officer became the fuel ignition that led to a series of disparate attacks, both verbal, retaliatory and violent. These incidents have been followed by numerous other occurrences between the police and the communities they serve – most of them captured on video – that have served to set off a powder keg of controversy that has effectively placed law enforcement on public trial.
Largely, it has been both accusatory in its anger and silent in its push for solutions.
For West Grove interim Police Chief Michael King, seeing these murders splayed all over the social landscape last year was the source of a frustration he felt both from fellow officers and the communities they serve.
"There was more to the story and only some of it was being given out," King told an audience gathered at "Building Bridges," a dialogue between local law enforcement officers and the community held March 18 in Kennett Square. "I wasn't taking sides, but it's so easy to formulate opinions with limited information. Having been in this profession for many years, you know that there's more to this."
For over 90 minutes, King was joined by five colleagues in an attempt to bridge those differences.
The event, held at the Mary D. Lang School Library, was intended to serve as the start of a dialogue between the community and neighboring police departments.
Moderated by Jerry Franklin Poe, the meeting was sponsored in collaboration with the MLK CommUNITY Advocates and the Inclusive Social Ministry for Solidarity. In addition to King, the panel included Matt Fetick, mayor of Kennett Square; Captain William White, commanding officer of the PA State Police Avondale; Samantha Minnucci, community service officer of the PA State Police Avondale; Rick Bell, corporal with the Kennett Square Police Department; and Gerald Simpson, police chief with the New Garden Township Police Department.
Throughout the open-ended dialogue, it was revealed that despite the fact that the Hispanic population comprises the largest percentage of population in the Kennett Square community, local police departments fall way short in the number of Spanish-speaking officers they employ, while the number of Spanish-speaking officers is dramatically small.
Laura Gonzalez of la Communidad Hispana in Kennett Square shared several comments she received during interviews with members of the organization. Many of the comments Gonzalez shared dealt with the language gap between the police and the local Hispanic residents who live and work in the area.
Quoting from the comments she received, Gonzalez asked the panel members, "Why, if we call the police, they never come, but if someone who speaks English with no accent, they immediately come?" "How can you explain that if a large majority of this population in this area speaks Spanish, there are no policemen or policewomen who are bilingual? Why don't more police departments do not hire more people who understand Spanish and the Latino cultures?
Gonzalez continued to quote from her list of comments. "They fear us because they don't understand us," she added. "We fear them because we not only do we not understand them, but because they see us as inferior. They treat us with disrespect. They think most of us are not citizens, that we don't vote. Therefore, we can be humiliated, we can be abused, because we have no power."
Currently, those on the panel said that Spanish language lessons for officers in their respective units are voluntary, not mandatory. Further, each department representative then shared that the number of Spanish-speaking officers on staff is disproportionate to the percentage of Spanish-speaking residents in the area, which, according to 2012 data compiled by City-Data.com, puts the Hispanic community of Kennett Square at just shy of 55 percent of the entire population.
Minnucci said that there are "at least four members" of the State Police Avondale who can speak Spanish, but that the department offers Spanish language training for officers.
"Many of us have taken these classes in order to bridge that gap," she said. "We want to be able to understand them, because how else can we help them."
Bell said that the Kennett Square Police Department has a 15-person department, of which three are bilingual, but that Spanish-speaking callers to the department receive translation assistance through language lines accessible through the Chester County's 9-1-1 line system.
White said that the State Police is actively trying to recruit a diverse population, so as to enable them to be assigned to heavily-populated Hispanic areas, but that the pool of potential officers is dwindling.
"We have a difficult time finding police officers. When I applied for the Pennsylvania State Police, there were 15,000 officers taking the entrance test to become a trooper. That number is down to 1,700. We're having problems finding police officer, let along finding police officers who speak Spanish."
White said that he and King – a long-time trooper for the PA State Police Avondale – had purchased Rosetta Stone lessons in order to learn the Spanish language.
"Why stop at Spanish?" King responded. "Do you think the people in the Asian community also want to be understood and communicated with? We've run into that professionally where there are only two Asian-speaking troopers in the entire state police, and we had to bring in officers from Philadelphia police to help us. Spanish is a prevalent language here, but in other parts of the state it may be more of an Asian influence. How can we possibly become fluent in all the languages that we may encounter?
Technology these days gives us that ability if we don't have those resources to find the people who do."
Simpson said that the calls for service New Garden receives are taken from everyone, not by ethnicity.
"In recent years, we've tried to get the information about how to access to police service in both English and Spanish languages," Simpson said. "I see the reports myself, and I see the Spanish names, so I know we're taking these types of complaints and reports and helping these people who are being victimized by these crimes.
A key contributor to the chasm that exist between officers and the community is in the lack of willingness many in law enforcement have in wanting to bridge the gap on their own. Chief James Bell, retired chief of police in West Chester and a law enforcement officer for 38 years, attended the event. He said he sees a lack of people skills training being offered to officers, as well as a lack of inter-mingling between local police – who are predominantly white – and people of different cultures. Bell said that a good example of the barrier break down was demonstrated by Kennett Township Police chief Albert McCarthy, who Bell said stopped by a cook-out in Kennett Square last year to talk with local residents.
"Chief McCarthy stopped by and everybody accepted him real well," Bell said. "I don't think that we know enough about the people who are not criminals. We all seem to know where the criminals are. We need to know who the good people are."
Calling Chief McCarthy's visit a great example of "community policing," Simpson said that such communication builds a comfort level that allows a law enforcement officer to build bridges with the community he or she serves.
"That's where we all want to be at, there's no doubt," Simpson said. "When we have those kinds of avenues, the trust is built, so that when bad moments happen, then at least we can have that relationship and trust to work through our differences, without the turmoil that you've seen across the nation."
White said that a major cause of the disconnect between law enforcement and the communities they serve is because many officers are simply not able to "turn off the job" after they punch the clock.
"The unfortunate reality is that things that we teach them in the academy to save their lives knock them into a different zone, which has a dramatic and sometimes negative effect when dealing with the public," he said. "You need that when you're working. However, after that eight hours is over, you need to get back to normal relationships with people. You need to be involved with church groups. You need to work out. You need to be involved with people other than fellow police officers. You can't work with cops for eight hours, and then go on vacations with cops."
The members of the panel shared initiatives their departments have incorporated that attempt to lessen the distance between law enforcement and the community. Minnucci spoke about her work with after-school programs she speaks at, which she does in an attempt to "tell the students that I'm a normal person just like you," she said. "My goal in life is to protect you. It has been making a great difference, so far."
Minnucci also spoke about the State Police's annual Camp Cadet, a summer program solely funded by businesses throughout the county, that brings in as many as 120 children from all nationalities in the county to learn about the world of law enforcement by speaking directly with law enforcement officers.
"We think that Camp Cadet is instrumental in helping us developing those long-term relationships in the community," White said. "When someone sees an officer [he or she got to know at the camp] five years from now, ten years from now, that relationship is still fostered."
Simpson shared information that the New Garden and Kennett Square police departments have recently become committed to speak at the la Communidad Hispana, in order to explain the role of the police throughout the nation.
Bell said that several members of the Kennett Square Police are involved in the After-the-Bell program at Kennett Middle School, as well as the Study Buddies program on Linden Street. Bell also spoke about the effectiveness of foot patrols, which encourage officers to speak one-on-one with individuals and families in Kennett Square.
Bell encouraged audience members to feel comfortable to speak with the police. A lot of times, he said, crimes in the Hispanic community go unreported because many are afraid that they will be deported.
"We need to have forums like this where people can express their concerns to them and we can express our concerns back to them," he said.
Poe suggested that a method of lessening the gap between communities can be done by accessing the police department's websites for information on how they can share resources and collaboration.
White said that public opinion that connects all police officers with those officers who demonstrate poor judgment – such as those officers in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, N.Y. in 2014 -- isn't fair from a law enforcement perspective. If anything, he said, it makes it worse.
"It makes cops more willing to draw their guns quicker, or become more amped up about a stop that six months ago, they wouldn't have thought twice about. I think there has to be an understanding on both sides. Police departments have to not treat every community like Ferguson. There has to be a maturity level, an understanding from both perspectives.
"There's going to be mistakes," White said. "There are going to be unarmed people shot, cops making right decisions and wrong decisions, and if we don't come together as a law enforcement community in conjunction with the communities we serve, we're not going to get anywhere. To be frank, we're open to suggestions. If you have a great idea where we can interact with our community, that's great."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.