Leaders tackle poor relations between minority communities, police

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Washington, DC, April 7, 2015 | comments

Sun Sentinel

By Anthony Man

April 7, 2015, 3:16 PM

Broward community leaders try to ease distrust for police in minority communities

Civic, political, religious and law enforcement leaders gathered Tuesday in an attempt to start conversations they hope will alleviate the mistrust many in minority communities feel toward the police.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, an organizer of the Broward Countyeffort, said there are "inherent, underlying trust issues that we know are simmering just below the surface."

She and U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Delray Beach, said the lack of trust is often stems from years of wrongs.

Attending discussion on relations betwen police and law enforcement"We all know that there are racial tensions in every community in America. We all know that there are biases. What's important is that we are going to try to work through those," Hastings said. "We don't want to see an explosion in our community."

In a nod to incidents that have erupted in the aftermaths of the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., Wasserman Schultz said, "It could happen here too. As leaders of the community we felt it was important to come together long before we reach that point."

Recognition is important, the congressional organizers said. But they and Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, a lifelong law enforcement officer, said fixes won't be easy.

"These problems, the mistrust with the community did not happen overnight. Some of them go back hundreds of years," Israel said. He's made outreach programs, changes in what leads to criminal arrests, and improving relations with minority communities among his top priorities since becoming sheriff in 2013.

"We're going to connect. We're going to come up with solutions that endure," Israel said.

Just what was said and accomplished at the gathering Tuesday morning, and the precise number of participants and their affiliations isn't known.

The gathering was held behind closed doors at the Broward Sheriff's Office, with media representatives allowed in the room for two minutes to take pictures. It appeared a couple of dozen people were around a large conference table and a few dozen more people seated nearby. Several participants appeared later at a news conference.

Aaliyah McCrary, a senior and president of the student body at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, said she told the assembled leaders that "students don't have trust with the law enforcement and the trust should be built." She added that, "basically, students don't trust the police because of what they've seen with issues such as what happened three weeks ago and issues such as what happened in Ferguson."

Almost three weeks ago, Fort Lauderdale police disclosed that four officers had exchanged text messages containing racial slurs and one had produced a racist video. Three were fired and one resigned. Ferguson endured months of protest following a controversial police shooting death of Brown, who was black, by a white officer. Protests also erupted after Garner, who was black, died after a white police officer administered a choke hold.

McCrary said there are positives to law enforcement, but too often they're obscured. "If people could see more of the positive things that are happening, then they will build more trust toward law enforcement."

Others attendees included Chief Judge Peter Weinstein, State Attorney Michael Satz and Wilton Manors Police Chief Paul O'Connell, who is president of the Broward CountyPolice Chiefs Association. "The great majority of law enforcement officers do the right things for the right reasons. It's a small minority that affect all agencies and all police and the entire system," Satz said.

Organizers didn't invite Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who doesn't enjoy good relations with Weinstein and Satz and has long been an outspoken critic of the way police treat people in minority neighborhoods. "Broward Countyarrest numbers and prosecution numbers evidence clearly institutionalized racism going back decades," Finkelstein said by email.

Also not present was Chief Frank Adderley of Fort Lauderdale, the county's largest city. He was invited, but said later by phone later by phone that he was in city meetings Tuesday morning to prepare for City Commission meetings in the afternoon and evening. "It's the commission day in the city of Fort Lauderdale, and a number of business meetings take place prior to our commission meetings."

The gathering stemmed from discussions between Hastings and Wasserman Schultz on the floor of the U.S. House in Washington. They said they'll expand the group to include mayors and more police chiefs. Ultimately, they'll invite the U.S. Department of Justice to come to Broward to work with the community on the issue.

Wasserman Schultz said she was struck by what she called "huge" cultural differences as she's learned more about the lack of trust of the police in some communities.

At her children's school in Weston, she said, high schoolers are more likely to view police as potential allies that they can turn to in trouble. In other communities, more students may view police as a threat, and people who need to be avoided.

"Our goal is to achieve equity, an equivalency, that no matter where you are in this community that there is a trust relationship with law enforcement, and that anyone in Broward County… could feel when something is wrong that they could run toward law enforcement, hat law enforcement would not be brining an inherent bias that would presume that in some communities automatically an individual is doing something wrong, when they might be doing something that is perfectly normal," Wasserman Schultz said.

Louis Sanders, pastor of the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Pompano Beach, who was sandwiched between Israel and Hastings at the conference table, and said the discussion was productive. "As long as people as people are coming together and have dialog, it is possible things can change."

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