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Improving community relations will help to build trust between police and the people they protect, panelists recommended Wednesday at a forum sponsored by the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The most important thing we as police need to do is balance the needs of the community from a crime reduction standpoint, while still maintaining trust,” said Jeff Hadley, Chief of Public Safety in Kalamazoo, at the forum at the ACLU’s headquarters in Detroit.

Longtime Detroit Police official James Tolbert, now Flint’s Police Chief, said it’s vital to improve community relations immediately.

“We’re just an incident away from a problem that might cause civil unrest,” he said. “It’s imperative that we address the narrative now.

“It used to be us and them. It needs to be just us.”

The media needs to be more responsible in reporting police-related incidents, said Danny Rosa, Training Analyst at the Michigan Coalition on Law Enforcement Standards, which certifies all police officers in Michigan.

“The media portrays things a certain way: That white guys are running around shooting black guys,” Rosa said.

“If a shooting happens tonight, and a white cop shoots a black guy, let’s just hold off on the emotion. All the white cops need to not automatically defend the officer, and people in the community need to not automatically assume things about the officer. Let’s let these investigations play out.”

The forum was organized in response to escalating tensions between police and the black community, after several high-profile incidents involving officer-related deaths, said Mark Fancher, ACLU attorney who oversees the organization’s Racial Justice Project.

Among the topics discussed: Changing police culture/restoring community trust; best practices to end racial profiling; the value of deescalating tense community/police encounters; police and the transgender community; and the role of psychological screening in limiting the risk of police misconduct.

“Many times, we send mixed messages to the community,” Hadley said. “When the crack epidemic came in, it was like a bomb went off. People said, ‘You’ve got to do something,’ so we did what police officers do: Arrest people. Strong arm of the law, and all that.

“But now, we’re seeing the collateral damage from that kind of approach. We need to work on building trust in the community at the street level.”

Hadley’s proposed solution? “Just be human to each other,” he said. “The community needs to see that police officers are human; that we have families. But that goes both ways: Officers need to see people differently, too. It’s not against the law to be poor, and 99 percent of the people out there are good people.”

Fancher said civil rights groups have ideas about how to improve things, “but the ACLU of Michigan recognizes it’s not a law enforcement agency,” he said. “We’ve not undergone training. As civilians, we have certain ideas what it might take to lessen the tensions between police and the community, and we’re not reluctant to share those ideas with law enforcement.

“But we also recognize that law enforcement might be skeptical about our authority to make those suggestions. They might not have the sense that our commitment is for their safety and success, as well as the community’s.”

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

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