The first in a series of diversity training sessions for law enforcement across the county began Wednesday and will continue for the next few months.
Organizers said if officers can foster relationships with the community, it could decrease racial and other tensions that could occur between law enforcement and community members.
“Our focus is really on helping to facilitate a discussion around building a culture of respect,” said Eric Ellis, CEO and President of Integrity Development, who moderated the training.
Tensions about racial conflict between police and citizens in several cities across the nation — including Cleveland, Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. — have erupted into protests and violence in the last year. Ellis, who has been in the diversity consultation business for more than 20 years, said that could have been prevented if law enforcement had learned to build relationships and understood the differences in their communities.
“If we don’t have strong relationships then we lack the foundation of trust in which to really work through some of our legitimate problems,” he said.
Community leaders hope the training can prevent racial tensions from escalating into the riots and violence seen in other U.S. cities.
“I sit and I watch the Ferguson case and I think, ‘What can I do here in our city to try to prevent that from happening here?’ — and the thing that came to my mind is we need to communicate better,” said Denise Williams, president of the Springfield chapter National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The command staff from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office and some deputies attended the training Wednesday. The NAACP plans to hold other sessions for deputies, police officers and community members in the coming months.
Williams and Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly collaborated in May to bring diversity training to the sheriff’s office after a deputy was fired for posting racially insensitive tweets about the Ferguson protests.
The deputy’s public racial comments were out of line, Kelly said, and although law enforcement personnel are allowed to have their own personal opinions, they should not affect their commitment to serving the community.
“We all come in to work every day with our own baggage — where we grew up, how we were raised, where we went to school and we bring that into the job — but the scales of justice are supposed to be blind,” Kelly said.
Some community leaders, such as Williams and Springfield City Commissioner Joyce Chilton, attended the training with deputies Wednesday.
The experience listening to the officers was eye-opening, Williams said.
“They have opinions and they have questions, and that’s what makes me excited,” she said, adding that she learned a lot from the officers during their discussions.