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Chester County Press

Editorial: 'Characterized by diversity'

01/05/2021 03:55PM ● By Richard Gaw

In an otherwise terrible year that tried our souls and weathered our spirits, two moments linked together by a common cause shone a great light upon southern Chester County in 2020.

On June 1, over 500 people gathered in Kennett Square Borough as part of a Black Lives Matter march, an event that infused its main streets with a veracity of volume, voice and hope.

As the Genesis clock began to chime at the 8 a.m. hour, the crowd showed their solidarity by dropping to one knee for a nine-minute moment of silence for George Lloyd, the 46-year-old man who was murdered on May 25, 2020 by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who wedged his knee into Lloyd’s neck for a period of eight minutes and 46 seconds until Lloyd lost oxygen, consciousness and his life.

Suddenly, a burst of applause exploded in the crowd. Kennett Police Chief William T. Holdsworth, joined by Corporal Kenneth Rongaus, Patrol Officer J.D. Boyer and the department’s chaplain Annalie Korengel, dropped to one knee at the intersection of State and Union streets.

On June 7 in West Grove, a crowd estimated at 300 filled the common area near the West Grove Library as part of a peaceful Black Lives Matter event that included a unified march through the borough, three public speeches and an eight-minute, forty-six second moment of silence to honor the memory of Floyd.

Later, after the congregation arrived at the West Grove Friends Quaker Meeting House, Southern Chester County Regional Police (SCCRPD) Chief Gerald Simpson, lent his voice and empathy in what may have been the finest hour of his professional career.

“Know that we will always be here to support you, your voice, your constitutional rights, as your partner,” Simpson told the silent crowd. “I’m sure it may feel disingenuous for me to say that I feel your pain, but I am a 37-year law enforcement veteran, and I am at a loss to understand how in God’s name George Floyd lost his life, and how in God’s name ‘I can’t breathe’ is not a signal to help this man breathe and render him aid.”

Time most assuredly allows for clearer hindsight, and reflection on these two moments several months after they occurred concludes that Holdsworth and Simpson – linked arm in arm with their departments – engaged in these acts with an intent to help heal the racial divide that Floyd’s death – as well as the deaths of dozens of other African-Americans at the hands of white police officers – has perpetuated.

Holdsworth and Simpson are not alone. Several other police departments in southern Chester County have stepped up their outreach with minority populations through active efforts in community policing. Their work in schools, neighborhood centers and in partnership with local agencies is a testament to their belief that honest and interpersonal relationships with people of different ethnic cultures and backgrounds can break down barriers.

Each of these departments, however, performs these services under the realization that the demographic make-up of their rosters does not match that of the growing constituency of minorities in the region – and throughout the nation. While the percentage of minority police officers in U.S. local law enforcement agencies almost doubled between 1987 and 2013, of the 697,195 full-time law enforcement officers that were employed in the United States in 2019, two-thirds were white.

The make-up of these local departments is a nearly-perfect reflection of nationwide statistics. Of the 21 police officers at the SCCRPD, all are white. Kennett Township’s ten-person department employs two officers of Hispanic descent, and in Kennett Borough, Holdsworth’s unit of 12 full-time officers and between three and five part-time patrol has one African-American officer and one Hispanic officer.

Against the backdrop of these numbers, the 2019 demographic breakdown of southern Chester County by the Chester County Planning Commission shows another reality. In New Garden Township, its population of 12,000 is one-quarter Hispanic, and in London Grove Township, the percentage rises to 30 percent. Of the 6,000 residents who live in the Kennett Square Borough, nearly half are Hispanic; and in Avondale Borough, that number is 61 percent.

By its calculations and forecasts, the county’s Planning Commission estimates that the county’s current population of 540,000 will soar to nearly 650,000 by 2040, and it is very likely that the minority population will rise in accordance with it.

Our message to our police departments is therefore simple and clear: Because they fulfill a fundamental role in our society, and in many communities, are the first faces of local government, it is critical that their departments more closely reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

Its reasoning is clear; supported by several decades of findings, it has been confirmed that when a community sees their law enforcement organizations become representative of them, it strengthens their perception that the people who are charged with keeping law and order are fair, legitimate and accountable.

An increased diversity in law enforcement -- defined not only by race but by gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, language ability, background and experience – is a critically important tool that is used to build trust with the communities they serve. Once established, trust allows police officers to conduct their professions with lesser scrutiny and with stronger lines of communication. Trust defuses tension. Trust helps solve crimes. Trust changes decades of public perception that has been – fairly or unfairly – imprinted on the uniforms of our officers.

This, we know: That the actions and words of Chief Holdsworth and Chief Simpson last June have become a mere microcosm for how effective our police departments have championed the causes of unity and togetherness in our region. The impact of their efforts are felt not only in large forums, but in the tender moments when a police officer does nothing more than listen and learn in a classroom, school hallway or in a neighborhood.  

We also know this: That the intention of this editorial is not to levy criticism against our local police agencies for their current hiring practices, but to serve as a bold call to action to place the hiring of minority officers among their top priorities in the decade ahead. They need not look far for inspiration. The people of southern Chester County have become a diffusion of ethnicities, interests and similarities, the matrix of which has been woven into place through a patchwork made by neighboring agencies, houses of faith, educational opportunities and a stunning entwine of cultures.

Our diversity has made us better, and it will save us.

The South African Anglican cleric, theologian and archbishop Desmond Tutu was quoted as saying, “We inhabit a universe that is characterized by diversity.” As our police agencies begin to write down their broad strokes that endeavor to engage our diversity, we imagine how greater their impact will be when they more closely resemble the communities they so proudly serve.