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Police aim to educate, strengthen community bonds through talks

With national news coverage the last couple years of white police officers shooting or causing bodily harm to black citizens who were at times unarmed, tension between law enforcement and the African American community appears to be rising.

The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Eric Garner in New York City, and Michael Slager in South Carolina, among other examples, have only thrown fuel on the fire.

Desiring to avoid such tensions escalating locally, as well as wishing to educate the community on how to improve interaction with law enforcement, the Irving Police Department and the Irving-Carrollton branch of the NAACP conducted an informative meeting open to the community on at Antioch Christian Church in Irving on Nov. 14. Entitled Law Enforcement and You, the discussion touched on positive protocol needed by both officers and citizens when interaction takes place.

“We’ve all seen what’s going on across the nation in places like Ferguson and elsewhere,” said Larry Boyd, Irving police chief. “When those things happen, it’s not just hard on the police department, but on the community as a whole.”

Sergeant Richard Miller of the Irving Police Department, who went through a curriculum on police interaction with the attendees at the meeting, encouraged parents to have what he calls ‘the talk’ with their children. The talk he’s referring to is telling them how to react and behave if and when they run into the police and are questioned or corrected for something they have done knowingly or unknowingly.

Children, both boys and girls, are never too young to be given this talk, according to Miller.

“That is a necessity, as far as I’m concerned,” said Miller, who shares the curriculum with students in Irving ISD middle and high schools regularly. “You know your child. You know when they’re ready to hear this.

“I’ve seen negative reactions (from young people during police intervention) when they were on the street,” he said. “Even if it isn’t a positive interaction, you have to be able to walk away from the interaction. It’s OK to disagree with what you’re hearing, but it really matters how you choose to react.”

During the meeting, a news video covering the death of a young officer in Flagstaff, Ariz., demonstrated how quickly things can go bad during police interaction even on a routine call. The officer was shot by a man he came to talk with after a domestic violence call, and while patting him down during a standard weapon check, the man quickly pulled out a gun. The incident was caught on the officer’s uniform cam.

That video showed why officers are always on high alert for potential danger, while another video showed how close a teen from the Metroplex was from being shot by an officer because of his actions in a tense situation. The officer responded to a call reporting that a young person was carrying a gun around a neighborhood in broad daylight. It turned out that the young man was carrying a BB gun that was a replica of a Beretta, but the way the teen responded put the officer in desperation mode.

When told to put his hands in the air, the young man started walking toward the officer instead of complying, while two peers accompanying him walked to the side with their backs toward the officer. The officer had drawn his weapon and shouted loudly before the youth finally threw his hands up and dropped to the ground.

“They were acting clueless,” Miller said of the young people in the video. “They weren’t being disrespectful, but they acted like they didn’t know what to do.

“They went right into explain-mode, and we don’t need that,” he said. “Some kids think, ‘I haven’t done anything wrong that warrants putting my hands up.’ That’s the mentality we’re trying to change.”

Realizing the seriousness of situations and how critical it is for youth and adults alike to comply with police in tense moments is what the department hopes to get across to the community. But members of the audience pointed out that some of those lessons need to start in the home.

“I think the thing we as parents need to teach our children is that we need to respect authority,” said Cynthia Clark, a member of Antioch Christian Church. “We need to re-emphasize that to them and have healthy dialogue. When you can share that in a healthy environment and help diffuse all these (negative perceptions of law enforcement) that we’re seeing, it will go a long way.”

Clark said she believes police relations with citizens portrayed in the media are not always cut and dry, and often the civilian did not respond appropriately, or both the civilian and the police were equally out of line. But she also shared about a time when her daughter was pulled over by a police officer from a nearby community in a traffic stop and felt her child was treated unfairly. She struggled internally with how to respond in that instance.

Officer Charlie Cavazos, who also spoke at the event, said that the Irving Police Department welcomes complaints regarding officers’ handling of situations, because they want to make sure all citizens are treated fairly.

“If you feel you’ve been a victim of racism by a police officer, speak up,” Cavazos said. “You have a voice with us. There is a forum for that, it’s just not on the side of the road. We want to hear about it and make sure everyone is kept accountable.”

Tony Grimes, president of the NAACP’s Irving-Carrollton branch, said another community event between the public and the Irving Police Department is planned for a date yet to be set in February at Ben Washington Baptist Church in Irving. The hope is to continue to change the view on police relations, and the Irving Police Department’s efforts to reach out and communicate have been beneficial.

“The perception of police [nationally] is awful,” Grimes said. “People kind of feel like we’ve gone back to the ’60’s as far as perception of police officers go.

“I sincerely believe that we have the best police department in the country here in Irving,” he said. “I respect Chief Boyd and what he does and his leadership. The perception that people have is much different if you live in Irving than the perception that you see in the media.”