By Rick Wolcott*
“God, these are difficult days for those who protect and serve, and for those who feel unprotected and unserved. Open our hearts and minds to hear from these faithful people today who give remarkable leadership in helping us understand the pressures of our times and to see clearly a way forward.”
- Invocation by the Rev. Dr. Ken Chalker of University Circle UMC
Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?, a town hall discussion of the relationship between police and the African American community, drew dozens of people to University Circle United Methodist Church (North Coast District) on Saturday, February 25.
“This did not start with Michael Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in New York or Tamir Rice here in Cleveland. This is a decades old problem, generations old. But if we don’t dialogue and discuss why we have this problem, and what we can do to solve this problem, it will result in chaos and confusion and mutual destruction of our community,” said Tina Johnson, chairperson of Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) in East Ohio, which sponsored the town hall meeting.
Pastor Marc Tibbs of Willson UMC (North Coast District), and the vice chairperson/program director of BMCR, said, “We are like ships passing in the night, not having a real candid conversation about what ails us.”
That changed on Saturday. For more than two hours, Tibbs moderated discussions about police hiring and training practices, response times, body cameras, community interaction, citizen expectations, parenting skills, and the public education system.
“We need to work together, the police and the community,” said Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams. “Our officers on a daily basis are involved in activities at schools, churches, community rec centers, parks, playgrounds, and in the neighborhoods. We started this in 2014 when I became chief and we determined that we had to have more of a guardian philosophy and not a warrior philosophy.”
Bedford Heights Mayor Fletcher Berger and Highland Hills Police Chief Antonio Stitt said that the officers in their respective cities also are required to have daily interaction with the citizens that they serve – but they don’t do it alone.
“I’m a technology guy,” Berger said. “So our police officers don’t interact with anybody without their body camera rolling because there needs to be accountability for everybody, the police officers and our citizens.”
“This helps with our review process,” Williams concurred. “All of our front line Cleveland police officers currently have body cameras.”
“I know we need our police to do more but we can’t let the community off the hook, either. We need our citizens to be engaged,” said the Rev. Dr. Yvonne Conner, a retired East Ohio Conference elder and a member of the Cleveland Community Police Commission.
She spoke often throughout the meeting about the importance of educating our children.
“Impactful, positive change is a team effort. I am persuaded to anchor my movements and my actions toward demanding equality in education for our most vulnerable, our children,” she said.
An afternoon of good information came to a climax when each panelist shared the one thing they would do if given a blank slate to address the issues facing our communities.
Michael Nelson, president of the Cleveland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) didn’t hesitate. “I would re-establish the Police Athletic League because it gave youth a chance to interact with police before they got in trouble,” he said.
Berger said, “We need to start with our youth. They need to get a different attitude. We are going to have to take an attitude that we can’t let youth get away with whatever they want.”
“I would start with our youth and building relationships,” Conner said.
“I think it starts at home. I was born in Tuskegee, Alabama and moved here when I was four when my mom split from my dad,” Williams said. “We were raised to respect others. Parents need to be parents, and not a best friend. We need to raise our kids the way they are supposed to be raised.”
Stitt agreed. “Family for me is the key. It’s amazing to me what people don’t know about raising their kids,” he said. “I spend a lot of time talking to and coaching parents.”
With that, the formal discussion ended. In its place, many smaller conversations filled the meeting room, the hallway, and the parking lot as people looked for signs of hope for the ways that we treat one another.
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.