- Associated Press - Saturday, January 3, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - When a teenage robbery suspect was killed by police after he shot and wounded an officer last month, ministers were among the first people investigators called.

Two went to the scene where officers had tried to coax the teen into surrendering; two went to the hospital to be with the wounded officer; another went to be with the young man’s grieving mother.

Police and the ministers say they were able to quickly tap into relationships formed over regular meetings. In the aftermath of police shootings of black suspects that prompted nationwide protests, the police had already gained the ministers’ trust and had their numbers close at hand.

It wasn’t the first time those relationships had paid off. Both police and the ministers say the meetings, usually over breakfast, are aimed at building trust with people who may otherwise be suspicious of authorities or reluctant to involve them in Nashville, a city with a history of racial tension and segregation not unlike that seen across the Deep South. And they say they are working.

Those conversations had helped back in October, too, after the shooting of a Tennessee State University student. During a meeting open to the public at a police precinct, officers learned that community leaders were going to hold a news conference about the shooting.

According to Pastor Enoch Fuzz, a regular at the meetings, the officers asked if they could attend and show a picture of the suspect.

About an hour after the news conference, a tip came in that led to the suspect’s capture.

“That press conference showed we are not protesting the police, we’re partnering with the police,” Fuzz said.

Last month, news that the 16-year-old robbery suspect was killed by four white officers may have intensified the scrutiny faced by police nationwide. Instead of a drawn-out, secretive investigation, authorities acted quickly to be transparent about what happened. They released details from the shooting, including a video interview with the black, female sergeant who pleaded with the teen to put down the gun, in an effort to show they followed proper procedure.

Police say the officers opened fire only after the teen shot and wounded the officer.

The ministers were able to help in various ways. Michael Joyner, a Baptist pastor, immediately went to console the mother of the teenager who was shot.

“We were there to comfort the family, see what actually happened, see what needs to be done,” Joyner said.

The teen’s mother, Natacha McDonald, bears no ill will even though she’s grief-stricken over her son’s death. She was sympathetic to the wounded officer, noting her mother has been a sheriff’s deputy in South Carolina for more than 20 years.

“It came from my heart,” McDonald said. “I just don’t like to see anyone injured or hurt.”

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson said the regular interaction with the community before that shooting was critical.

“We’re out there building that credibility with the community,” Anderson said. “So when we get to a situation like this, the community has no reason to doubt us.”

That credibility has been important to residents like Ruby Baker, 54, who is black. Several years ago, she feared for her life in her neighborhood. Then she spoke to a couple of officers at her local precinct who helped her start a neighborhood watch program, and officers have increased patrols in her area.

Since then, crime has dropped in that neighborhood 40 percent, according to police department figures. Baker said people now think differently when they see police officers.

“It gives you a sense of safety, comfort. And once the residents feel safe, then they’re more willing to … address some of the issues their communities face,” Baker said.

What has happened in Nashville has been hailed as a model, and clergy and police elsewhere have taken notice.

In Memphis, which has one of the nation’s highest crime rates, clergy held a symposium Saturday with city officials and police leaders to discuss ways the community and police can collaborate.

Before the symposium, Pastor Alex Horton of Longview Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church and other clergy took members of their churches to local precincts to offer prayers with some of the officers, to show appreciation for what they do each day.

“If we know each other, we’re more likely to not be so hasty in our behavior,” said Horton. “And our thoughts for each other are not so prejudiced.”

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