Springfield leaders: ‘We are trying so hard to make this one community’

The death of five police officers and wounding of seven more shook residents and officers in Springfield who were left unsure how or when the violence would end.

Law enforcement officers have made progress to improve relationships with Clark County residents, Sheriff Gene Kelly said. But Thursday’s attack rattled local leaders.

“We’re doing the right things,” Kelly said. “But we’re still dealing with humans who have emotions and thoughts and frustrations and we’re the most visible sign of government. That’s why we need to take extra precautions and we need to be better trained and prepared. We’re doing all of that, but as evidenced by last night, you can’t prepare for everything.”

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The NAACP Springfield Unit will host a prayer vigil with local law enforcement agencies from noon to 1 p.m. today at it offices, 300 E. Auburn Ave.

Denise Williams, president of the Springfield unit of the NAACP, said she couldn’t remember a time since the 1960s with so much tension between police and residents nationally.

“It’s like we’re reliving this again,” she said. “Could this happen? It’s happening now.”

Williams called Kelly and Springfield Police Division Chief Stephen Moody early Friday to offer her support and prayers.

“I also wanted to extend my thoughts and prayers to make sure the men and women in uniform know we’re standing with them,” she said. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with both departments. We are trying so hard to make this one community.”

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The relationship with local law enforcement has improved, Williams said, but can always be better. She speaks to both Kelly and Moody at least every other week to review arrest statistics and discuss concerns raised by residents.

But incidents like Thursday night’s shooting shows no one can be sure when or where violence will occur, Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland said.

“I’d like to think we’re in much better shape than other communities in terms of what’s been happening,” Copeland said. “But this is the kind of thing that scares the police chief and scares me all the time that anything like this might happen here. It’s something you have to continually work on and we need to keep doing it.”

Springfield Police Division officers have worked for more than a decade to reduce tension with residents, Chief Stephen Moody said. That includes regular training and discussions with officers on a daily basis.

The division has placed officers in schools so children from a young age think of officers as mentors instead of adversaries, he said.

At the same time, he urged residents to comply with officers to prevent conflict. It’s better to lodge complaints afterward to local pastors, city officials or organizations like the NAACP if there are concerns about an officer’s behavior, Moody said.

“Once we engage people, we would ask that you comply because you can always complain,” Moody said. “There’s always a way to work things out.”

Kelly knows firsthand the tragedy of losing a deputy in the line of duty. In 2011, Deputy Suzanne Waughtel Hopper was shot and killed while investigating a report of shots fired at the Enon Beach campground.

“I never, ever want to go through what I did in 2011 and lose a deputy,” Kelly said.

Just one week ago, Kelly attended a meeting with law enforcement officers from across the U.S. in Washington, D.C. to discuss strategies to improve interactions with the public.

“Everybody felt really good leaving there that so much has been accomplished,” Kelly said of the meeting in Washington. “But when something like what’s happened this week in Louisiana and Minnesota and now in Dallas, it’s really going to challenge law enforcement. You’ve got to be concerned about your safety and the safety of the community and those that see this as an opportunity to act out.”

Law enforcement leaders also need to take steps to remove officers who act inappropriately on the job, Kelly said.

“If you have individuals who act inappropriately or do not follow our code of conduct or oath of office then they should not be in law enforcement,” Kelly said. “I think that’s what’s happening across America. It’s not a perfect group of individuals. There are people who should not be law enforcement officers and it’s our job to weed them out and remove them.”

Widespread use of body cameras and cell phone videos have also altered interactions between police and residents, Copeland said.

That’s resulted in more coverage of police-involved shootings like those in Louisiana and Minnesota this week, Copeland said, which may eventually lead to better solutions to prevent them in the future.

“Whatever happens now, we tend to hear about it all over the country whereas in the past everybody didn’t have a camera in their hand,” Copeland said.

>>MORE DETAILS: Springfield mayor concerned about level of violence

The relationship between police and the community needs constant vigilance, Williams said. The challenge is to keep calm if there are problems, she said, and demonstrate peacefully.

“This is not just a black issue,” Williams said. “It’s all races. It’s about all of us and it’s got to end. But the minority of African Americans are the ones who are at risk right now.”

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