Community stakeholders and Los Angeles Police Department officers held discussions on recent events involving law enforcement and officer-involved-shootings.
Their frank, near two-hour round table talks occurred during the Empowerment Congress’ Days of Dialogue on the Future of Policing at the Expo Park Constituent Service Center on July 23.
Everyone was considered equal, meaning all were able to voice their opinions about the future of policing irrespective of titles or positions.
Participants included concerned residents, grassroots activists, leaders of nonprofit organizations, businesses, religious institutions, and law enforcement.
“Welcome to a neutral space for conversation. It is essentially a tried and true methodology experiment essentially that causes us to stay the course,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.
He said a dialogue is not a protest, a town hall, nor a panel, but by definition, a space where people are obliged to listen to each other. Ground rules define the nature of participants’ engagement, he noted.
“I make the claim that there is a space, there is a place for dialogue amidst all of what is going on in our communities here in Los Angeles and across the nation,” Ridley-Thomas said.
He founded the Empowerment Congress in 1992 to create a distinctive and deliberate national model of civic engagement built on the core principles of participatory democracy, reciprocal accountability, and intentional civility.
Ridley-Thomas does not argue that dialogues are superior to any other form of expression, but he asserted dialogue is essential. For the 20 plus years he, his staff, and constituents have engaged in the effort, he has yet to witness an unsuccessful dialogue, he said.
“Typically people leave the spaces, these places, these conversations, having been benefited either being able to learn someone else’s view, blow off a little steam, refine their argument, learn more effectively what is flawed in someone else’s reasoning, or flawed in my own reasoning. These are provocative opportunities to introspect and to communicate,” he added.
The Days of Dialogue, which arise typically out of controversy and conflict, began in 1995, and participants hail from diverse communities within L.A. County’s Second District, said Avis Ridley-Thomas, co-director of the Institute for Non-Violence in Los Angeles and Days of Dialogue.
Before she laid out the ground rules and discussion guides, Avis Ridley-Thomas thanked participants for sacrificing their Saturday morning to grapple with the issues.
“The first Days of Dialogue on race relations in 95 started because we needed an opportunity to interact in a constructive way, so who would have known that here, now, in 2016, we would still be trying to just get our folks out and interact as a first step,” she told the Sentinel.
“Whatever else you have to do, you’ve got to do, but just getting us to sit down and grapple with these very difficult issues is so important for our community,” Avis Ridley-Thomas said.
The frank encounters at 12 dialogue tables were monitored by one facilitator each to help ensure the dialogues stayed on track. The conversations focused on community policing, racial profiling, police accountability, and militarization of police.
During report backs, citizens spoke openly about their table’s talks and conclusions.
One man shared his unique background as an ex-gang member and an ex-offender, who has been arrested over 20 times. He has been out of trouble for over 20 years, as well, he said.
He has attended the Days of Dialogue three times, because he feels they are important, he said.
“I could easily hide in the shadows I walked the streets I don’t have ex-convict on my forehead but I find it important for people to see all angles of this problem,” he said.
“I commend the LAPD officers who are taking part in this, but the thing that I do not like about this set up is that the criminal justice system is much bigger than this. You guys are just one cog in the wheel,” the ex-gang member now gang intervention worker stated.
“I would like to see Department of Corrections involved, the Sheriff Department, judges, public defenders, you’ve got parole officers, you’ve got probation officers … There’s a real big issue,” he continued.
One young woman said she appreciated officers being in the circles, because that made the dialogues more authentic. She expressed to the officer in her dialogue circle that she feels he gets all of his understanding about her community through the news, which is highly problematic.
Another table’s representative said their sentiment was it is really important for cops and citizens to see each other as people. People need to see cops as members of the community and cops should see members of the community as people and not criminals, the spokesperson stated.
Rashad Sharif, senior lead officer, is approaching 27 years with LAPD. He told the Sentinel he enjoys the days of dialogue because it gives community members a chance to interact and speak with law enforcement. In turn it gives law enforcement a chance to hear what they have to say.
“Otherwise, we only get what the media portrays either in print or on TV, so now, we actually get to hear from the people who live in the community,” Sharif stated.
The most interesting thing that I did find was how some of the participant viewed the police is that we’re not as compassionate,” Sharif said.
For instance, a few incidents, such as the Alton Sterling shooting in Baton Rouge, La. occurred where community members felt the police basically did not care, he said.
“It’s just good to get a different perspective of what other people think, because we as cops we talk around each other, and we know we all may share the same opinion, but here, we’re out with people that actually don’t share our opinion, so it keeps us in check and balance like, wow! That’s what they really think. Maybe we need to do a better job,” Sharif stated.
One table had both a training officer and retired Sheriff deputy at their table, both working on evolution, the table spokesperson said. The take away for him was the tension between police/law enforcement procedures and the question of unpredictability on part of the community.
People want to know what is justifiable when it comes to excessive force, what is procedure, and how is law enforcement addressing people’s need for conversations about what those procedures should be, he said.
Another spokesperson turned the tables. Law enforcement wants the community to engage and if they see something, say something, the young lady noted. Well, the community wants the same respect, too in the police department, she said. “If you see something that your fellow officers are doing that does not comply with the authority of the badge or whatever, pull them aside. Say something, and it starts at home,” she said.