Erika D. Smith

Erika D. Smith: Police gather at park to bridge gaps

Sacramento County probation officers and sheriff’s deputies greeted the public at Jack Davis Park during Tuesday's National Night Out, off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Sacramento County probation officers and sheriff’s deputies greeted the public at Jack Davis Park during Tuesday's National Night Out, off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. esmith@sacbee.com

Renee Weathered showed up to Jack Davis Park on Tuesday night, not knowing exactly what to expect.

Her lucky cane in hand – she swears it once saved her from a bullet – the 52-year-old looked at her grandson across the grass.

“I want him to see that cops and regular people can hang out without any problems.”

These days, that seems like a tall order, especially in low-income, often crime-plagued neighborhoods like the ones near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in south Sacramento.

And yet, cops continue to try.

Tuesday was National Night Out, the night each year when police officers, sheriff’s deputies and probation officers gather, smiles on their faces, in neighborhoods in cities across the country.

They share hot dogs. They give away bicycles. They dance. They watch kids play ball who might otherwise be wary of being so close to people carrying badges, guns and handcuffs, although, as Weathered pointed out looking around the park, “There ain’t no crooks here.”

On National Night Out, cops get to show they’re human. That always has been critical for building trust with the communities they serve, but it’s even more critical now with the wave of national unrest over the questionable treatment of people of color by police.

On National Night Out, cops show they’re human. That always has been critical for building trust with the communities they serve, but it’s even more critical now.

This Sunday is the anniversary of the fatal shooting of black teen Michael Brown by white Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson. That racially charged incident set off days of violent protests in Missouri and across the nation.

Since then, it seems not a month has gone by without another video surfacing of another person being shot, dragged, handcuffed or beaten.

Some of those videos have merit. Some don’t. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t seem to care.

Now we have the martyrs of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Samuel DuBose and Sandra Bland. We have police officers wearing body cameras and smartphone apps that automatically upload videos of an arrest to the Web.

Tensions between police and citizens haven’t been this high in years. Certainly not in my lifetime, with the possible exception of the Rodney King riots in 1992 when I was a teenager.

Even in Sacramento, the cops get grief. Weathered, who calls herself the “neighborhood snoop” and says she has a good working relationship with the police, readily admits most of her neighbors don’t trust the cops.

I couldn’t help but think of that when, on my drive back to midtown along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, I spotted a young man, his trunk ajar, next to a police car. I wondered what he was thinking. Probably nothing good about the police.

That’s why events like National Night Out are so important. It might be only one night a year, but it is proof that cops and regular people can hang out together without problems.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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