Setting The Example: Harrisonburg Strives to Be a Leader in Community Police Relations

by Erika Harrington

When you look at our country’s current racial climate or the tensions between minorities and law enforcement, it’s easy to let your mind wander to the large scale issue. However, it’s important to remember that taking action locally can have far-reaching impacts. This brings us to the work of 4C, local activists, community members, and JMU students. These groups came together to answer a simple question,

‘What can Harrisonburg do to become a leader in community police relations in the nation?’

How can we make some changes here at home to show what healthy relationships between law enforcement and the community they serve, looks like? What would these changes look like? And how do prioritize these in the most sensible way?

The participants focused on three areas of improvement – education, relationship building, and policy – each of which led to action items. Education focused on what information could help law enforcement work better in their community, the ways we could get this information to law enforcement, and the channels we could use to keep the public updated on the efforts being made by law enforcement. The group brainstormed a list of education needs including citizens knowing their rights, lessons on bias and institutional racism for police officers, and information about restorative justice. Relationship building was a key factor, as the source of many problems can be rooted in the disconnect between officers and the people they serve. Suggestions included officers participating in community events and spending time with youth. Last was policy. This is the formal restructuring of the current system that will ensure consistency. This piece moves away from the culture of police relations and looks at the regulatory aspect. Some of these ideas are as follows:

  • Intensive law enforcement training on bias and mental illness
  • Improved data collection
  • The end of collaboration between police and ICE
  • Establing a civilian review board for all uses of force
  • PTSD screening and random drug testing for officers

The night ended with many attendees thanking 4C for the opportunity to take part in this important conversations. However, there is still a great deal of work to be done. The 4C student team that designed and facilitated the conversation produced a report that was distributed to all of the participants and shared with city council to help support continued changes in Harrisonburg’s local law enforcement that establish Harrisonburg as a community concerned with equity and justice for all. Hopefully, these are changes that the community will be able to see in the near future.
For more information check out the full report here. Deliberating About Harrisonburg Community Police Relations Report


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