By Scott Hansen
DESOTO, TX – On the evening of Tuesday, May 26th the police chiefs of the four Best Southwest cities, Cedar Hill, DeSoto, Duncanville and Lancaster, paneled an ‘Interaction with Law Enforcement’ Forum. The chiefs answered questions from the moderator, as well as questions submitted by the audience. The goal of the forum was to help build community partnerships and strengthen the dialogue between law enforcement and citizens.
The forum was the inspiration of Oscar Epps, Senior Pastor of the Community Missionary Baptist Church in DeSoto, where the forum was held. Pastor Epps, whose infectious smile and firm handshake endeared me to him immediately, was concerned about the reports from other small towns across America that have horrified us all in the past few years.
“I want to be proactive, and get the community and the police talking and working together,” said Pastor Epps. He discussed his idea with Cheryl Wilson, a member of the Community Missionary Baptist Church and Lancaster’s Chief of Police. Chief Wilson coordinated with the other Best Southwest police chiefs, Chief Robert Brown of Duncanville, Chief Joseph Costa of DeSoto and Chief Steve Rhodes of Cedar Hill to make the forum a reality.
After an opening prayer, each chief introduced themselves to the audience of around 100 people. All agreed that it was in everyone’s best interest to remove negative stereotypes and build safer communities.
Pastor Epps, acting as moderator, asked three questions to the prestigious panel. First, what initiatives are in place in your respective communities to foster trust and promote transparency? Each chief outlined the programs their departments have in place with all focusing on community outreach, training and communication.
Second, what training is offered to prepare officers to deal with persons with mental illnesses? Chief Wilson surprised me when she said that after domestic violence calls, calls involving mental illness were the most her officers responded to. All chiefs strongly urged family members of those on medication for mental illness to make sure they take their medication!
Third, what is your opinion on body cameras, what are your implementation goals, and how do you think it will affect officer behavior? Body cameras have become a buzz word in the news recently, and people are putting pressure on law enforcement to employ body cameras in their respective departments.
“Body cameras are an important tool,” said Chief Rhodes, “but they are not a panacea; they will not solve all the issues faced by police or citizens.”
“Body cameras provide a perspective on an interaction [between police and civilians] that you can’t refute,” said Chief Costa. DeSoto has already begun implementing their body camera system, with officers and jailors already equipped. When fully operational, civil servants who interact with the public, such as animal control officers, will also be equipped. Chief Costa explained that the video from these cameras is automatically downloaded when officers return to the police station, and are normally kept for 90 days. Any video that is needed for evidence is tagged with a case number and kept for the life of that case.
Chief Brown says that Duncanville had just gotten their body cameras in about 2 weeks ago, and his department is working to implement the policies for their use. Cedar Hill has their body cameras on order, and should be getting them sometime in July. Lancaster also has their body cameras on order, and will be using the same ones that DeSoto currently employs.
The audience questions revolved around youth athletics with the police and programs such as PAL, the Police Athletic League, as well as what was necessary for youngsters to become police officers themselves.
In the closing remarks, each chief stressed the need for parents to have serious talks with their children. To make them understand that there is a correct way to interact with the police and that almost all of the incidents that ended up badly were initiated by the person the officer stopped.
“By statute, the police have the right to take two things from you; your liberty and your life,” said Chief Wilson. This may sound scary, but it is the power we give our law enforcement agencies in order to protect our lives, the lives of our families and our property. It is a power that we need to respect, not fear. We also need to understand that officers are people too, who want to do their duty and return to home to their family like anyone else.
There is one statement, made by Chief Brown of Duncanville, that I think really stood out, and one which I think is a fitting summation of this article.
“The police are not an occupying force; we are part of the community…”