US police reaching out to black communities

2014-08-27 21:16
A man is arrested as a protest escalates between police and protesters along a street in Ferguson, Missouri. (Michael Thomas, AFP)

A man is arrested as a protest escalates between police and protesters along a street in Ferguson, Missouri. (Michael Thomas, AFP)

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Dallas - Some US police departments are renewing efforts to build trust with black communities in the aftermath of the shooting death of an unarmed 18-year-old black man in Missouri.

Police departments are holding public meetings to field questions and let people voice the anger they feel toward officers who patrol their neighbourhoods, hoping to avoid the upheaval that followed Michael Brown's 9 August death.

Dallas Police Chief David Brown considers it a preventative step.

"I'd much rather they shout at me at a town hall meeting at a church and get to know me afterward than not have a relationship," Brown said. After a police shooting has already happened, "it's too late to try to establish relationships."

Michael Brown was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson, sparking sometimes violent protests the St Louis suburb of Ferguson. Police have said a scuffle broke out after Wilson told Brown and a friend to move out of the street and onto a sidewalk.

Police say Wilson was pushed into his squad car and physically assaulted. Some witnesses have reported seeing Brown's arms up in the air before the shooting, an apparent sign of surrender. A grand jury is considering whether or not Wilson should be charged with a crime.

Dallas has had 13 police shootings so far this year, leading to eight deaths. That follows last year's tally of 22 shootings and six deaths, according to police.

To reassure the public, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins recently announced he would begin sending two prosecutors to independently investigate each police shooting.

Both Watkins and David Brown, the police chief, are black and grew up in Dallas. Watkins described his own mistrust of law enforcement as a young man and said more needs to be done to restore public confidence in law-enforcement agencies, particularly among blacks and Latinos.

"This is a reality that we deal with in this country," Watkins said. "And until we face it, we're always going to have issues like Ferguson. I don't want to have the same thing happen here."

Two Dallas officers were recently fired and indicted for separate shootings of civilians.

Body cameras

To address the issue, the department is running a pilot programme for body cameras and buying more Tasers to give officers a less-deadly option to subdue attackers, Brown said.

The fraught relationship between police and black residents was evident last week when a group of black protesters marched through south Dallas chanting the name of Michael Brown.

The group calls itself the Huey P Newton Gun Club, after one of the co-founders of the Black Panthers movement of the civil rights era. About 30 people carried signs and long guns, which are permitted in most public places in Texas. Several protesters said their concerns went beyond Ferguson.

"A lot of people today are talking about Mike Brown," one of the group's organisers, Charles Goodson, told Dallas television station WFAA. "Mike Brown is not an isolated incident. We have many Mike Browns in the city of Dallas."

In Nashville, Tennessee, Police Chief Steve Anderson and several other law-enforcement and political leaders were part of a meeting last week that drew several hundred people, most of them black, to a Baptist church. Kansas City, Missouri, police have also begun a series of community forums where residents can meet with officers.

When a man died last month after being placed in a chokehold by officers in New York City, police moved quickly to contact community activists and the man's family, avoiding much of the unrest that affected Ferguson.

Among the police departments planning changes is Ferguson itself.

The city said in a statement that it would "learn from this tragedy". The statement outlined a range of actions being explored, including hiring more black officers, raising money to buy dashboard and body cameras, working more closely with schools to provide better resources for young people and rebuilding the business district affected by rioting.

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