‘There needs to be more engagement.”
That was the general sentiment Saturday morning among participants of the Roseville Police Department’s community outreach effort – Coffee with a Cop.
The idea has been around a while – provide an informal setting where residents chat with police about neighborhood concerns, and maybe break down barriers. Numerous California police agencies do this, including Sacramento, Elk Grove and even the campus police at Sacramento State.
This was the second such event for Roseville police. Last month’s was inside the Peet’s Coffee at the Fountains shops; this was at a Peet’s bordering Rocklin.
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Violent crime is rare in Roseville, as is hostility toward police. “This area is very pro public safety,” said Jerry Wernli, the officer hosting these events.
Still, for the two dozen or so residents who showed up, race and the police was never far from anyone’s mind. Rick Luntz told me how Ferguson, Mo., and New York came up at his dinner party the night before. “When I sat down, I had an opinion,” he said. “When I got up, I had a different opinion.”
His point: In exchanging ideas, you just might learn something, or discover that your preconceived notions are wrong. Moving from table to table, I heard attendees express broad agreement on several fronts: a need for greater empathy, a willingness to engage people different from ourselves and frustration with media sensationalism.
Then again, those incredibly poor-taste “news” segments – especially on cable networks – can’t be the ratings bonanzas they are unless we watch, while others exploit that knowing they’ll have an audience.
Activists cry injustice over Ferguson and Staten Island. Maybe they’re right, but do they ever admit being wrong – say, for example, in 2006, by supporting Crystal Gail Mangum, an African American, after it was proved she lied about being raped by three white Duke University students?
Would it help the image of police if departments more willingly admitted to the poor handling of a situation?
“If they do that after the fact, they’re accepting liability,” Wernli told me. Sadly, our litigious society is a big reason many institutions rarely admit fault.
Devereaux Divens and his wife were the only African Americans at Saturday’s gathering. A big fan of police, he advises: “You want a nice police officer? Be nice. Nine times out of 10, the way you treat a cop is the way he’ll treat you.”
I tell him about Elias, a 13-year-old who called in while I was guest-hosting a talk show on KFBK last week to say he wakes up every morning believing people will see him as a black person instead of just another person. “I have to worry about whether someone won’t hire me just because I’m black,” Elias said. Yes, there are laws against discrimination, but his fears, based on his perceptions, are far more powerful.
Divens then explains that he decided not to wear his beanie that morning “because people will look at me differently than if I go out wearing my cowboy hat.”
Police see social media as one answer. Sacramento police last year partnered with Nextdoor, a site that connects residents with each other and with the department. Some 20,000 Sacramentans are now members, representing nearly 90 percent of the city’s neighborhoods, allowing residents to chat with officers and each other through online threads.
Except too often we use social media to affirm our views rather than seeking viewpoints that might change our perceptions. Social media might enhance but can never replace face-to-face interaction.
Rarely do we just chat with police. I talk to them all the time, though in recent years I’ve noticed a change in demeanor when I approach as a complete stranger. They seem more guarded, just as some Americans seem toward people of color.
Does what happened in Ferguson, or Staten Island, or anywhere reinforce our stereotypes about race, or about police and an inequitable justice system? Sadly, yes.
“To change that,” Luntz said, “we have to have more conversations with one another.”
And, I think, be willing to enter into those conversations knowing that sometimes the people we distrust, the people with whom we disagree, just might be right. Sometimes, the opinion we have when we get up is going to be different from the one we had when we first sat down.