- Associated Press - Friday, August 15, 2014

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (AP) — The shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. has brought the long-simmering debate over law enforcement and the use of deadly force to the forefront yet again.

A Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot and killed the unarmed 18-year-old this month, police say, following a confrontation about Brown and a friend walking in the street and a vague altercation. The teen’s death incited heated protests in the St. Louis suburb and a massive social media response.

Headlines cropped up across the nation, and Brown’s killing has become a part of the local discourse, the Southeast Missourian reported (https://bit.ly/1AdNDkV ).

Stafford Moore, a minister at Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Cape Girardeau, said in his estimation, the local community is deeply disturbed by the initial reports coming from a town two hours away.

“People are dismayed,” he said. “People are in disbelief that something like that could happen so close to us.”

He said nobody should rush to judgment before all the facts of the case are determined, but explained the narrative so far is enough to give many in the community pause. A police officer allegedly killed an unarmed teen who, according to two eyewitnesses, had his hands raised in surrender.

“Now, that’s not going to happen in Cape. We don’t expect that from our law enforcement,” Moore said. “But it does affect each one of us as individuals. Both (law enforcement officers and residents) are being affected by what we’re seeing.”

He said the incident exacerbates the mutual anxieties that can exist between police officers and the populations they protect in a way reminiscent of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida by community watch organizer George Zimmerman or the more recent death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York policeman in July.

“(Officers and citizens) are both operating from a place of fear, and you act accordingly,” Moore said. “These types of things in the psyche of a black male build a prism through which you start to view authority. I wouldn’t characterize the relationship between the community and law enforcement as dysfunctional; but it’s not as trusting as it should be.”

Darrin Hickey, spokesman for the Cape Girardeau Police Department, acknowledged the phenomenon, but explained that fostering effective communication and trust between law enforcement and the community is a top priority.

“We want the people in the communities we serve to feel comfortable and know that they can come to us,” he said. “That’s what we’ve strived for, for years.”

When police chief Wes Blair took the helm in 2013, he pushed for programs such as last week’s National Night Out and an upcoming event that would facilitate such communication by allowing citizens to meet cops over a cup of coffee.

Blair was interviewed earlier this year as part of the Southeast Missourian’s “Newsmakers: 2014” series, in which he explained that realizing every person deserves to be treated with dignity is crucial to maintaining law and order.

“If you do it with compassion, you’ll be a lot more effective,” he said.

DeWayne Clark owns C&E After Hours Detailing at 401 S. Sprigg St. in Cape Girardeau, and said he definitely perceives a disconnect between law enforcement and certain sectors of the community, south Cape Girardeau in particular.

“There’s just no communication. No communication at all,” he said. “The police will sometimes stop around, but they won’t talk to you, and if they do, then someone’s going to come tell you, ‘Hey, don’t do that.’”

Moore echoed that sentiment.

“Between certain communities, certainly Ward 2, and the police officers, there’s a lack of trust,” Moore said. “People don’t always think (the police are) serving them equally.”

Hickey explained that’s why events such as the National Night Out and others are so important.

“That’s the point,” he said. “To get them out of a formal setting and bridge the gap so people can ask questions and feel more comfortable.”

Clark said he would be willing to attend such events in the future.

“Anytime they can treat me like a man and I can treat them like a man; if they have stuff like that, I’d be glad to go,” he said.

The informal communication is designed to build mutual concern instead of the mutual apprehension that can build up in day-to-day interactions. For years, Ward 2 in the southern portion of Cape Girardeau has seen a higher crime rate than the larger Cape Girardeau community, and this year is no exception.

All four of the city’s homicides this year occurred in the ward, roughly bounded by Broadway and east of West End Boulevard. Residents say it is the place where the miscommunication is most evident. Both parties’ goal is safe streets, but police say community involvement is necessary to achieve that end.

“If there’s a pothole on your street, you call the street department. If there’s crime on your street, it’s no different,” Hickey said. “You need to call the police department to get that resolved. Unfortunately, we can’t just come in with a bucket truck and fix it. It’s more complicated than a pothole.”

Ward 2’s Councilwoman Shelly Moore said she’s thankful her community hasn’t had any incidents comparable to the one in Ferguson, but said change needs to be affected to ensure it never does.

“There are ways to enact nonviolent change,” she said. “Like administering evaluations to police officers regularly to determine their levels of stress to make sure they would be able to handle a tense situation.”

Stafford Moore said that since communication appears to be the issue, the solution is to bridge that gap. He said more involvement in informal meetings might foster trust for citizens, and diversity training could help officers feel more at ease in communities whose dynamics they might not fully understand.

Hickey said the department is going to great lengths in both those areas. Continuing state-mandated racial profiling and diversity training is already in progress, and the department has made an effort to reach citizens via social media.

Unfortunately, he explained, it becomes a question of manpower.

“We try very hard working on communication,” he said. “But when something else major happens, we sometimes have to focus on something else.”

For now, Shelly Moore said, the community will have to continue to make a conscious effort to open channels of communication, and in the meantime, pray for all those involved in the Ferguson conflict.

“My prayers (go) out to both these young men,” she said. “There are two questions there: Why did this have to happen to Mike Brown; and why did this have to happen to the police officer?”


Information from: Southeast Missourian, https://www.semissourian.com

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