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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Seeking to Understand: The Power of Participants

By Ali Steed

I am very shy. I thought that might be a problem when I entered into an SCOM class that centered on the organization and facilitation of public process. I was nervous about my ability to facilitate a dialogue for people I didn’t know. What would they be like? How would they speak to one another? What would I do if the conversation veered off into a bunch of name-calling and raised voices? My trepidation lingered until my first time as an official facilitator, where I began to see the unique ways that people interact in the type of environment that dialogue and deliberation makes possible.

It’s an interesting contrast: the point of having the conversation is for people with a stake in the dialogue to be able to contribute their perspective while simultaneously enlarging it through engaging with others. Yet, it is those same participants with a vested interest in the conversation that are likely to have the strongest feelings and opinions about the issue. On one hand, this is exciting—the prospect of knowing that you can help positively impact a person by allowing them to speak about some of their most deeply held truths is one of the most rewarding parts of being a facilitator. On the other hand, it is a daunting task as the facilitator to ensure that people so invested in the topic speak considerately and seek to understand those who also have deeply held beliefs.

Facilitating the dialogue The State and Marriage: Understanding Two Perspectives helped illustrate the unique ability of dialogue to foster an environment that promotes true understanding and valuable conversation amongst its participants. The small group that I facilitated was as engaged, compassionate, and thoughtful, as any group I have seen during my last few years as a facilitator. The marriage forum was a great example of a group of people seeking to understand. The participants asked with genuine interest and spoke with true consideration.

Sometimes, as a facilitator, you can get so wrapped up in the “what could go wrong,” that you forget all of the “what could go right.” My experience at the marriage forum reminded me of all that does indeed go right by virtue of engaging in community dialogue, regardless of how delicate an issue might be. Participants have the power to hold onto their own beliefs while still acknowledging the beliefs of others. Though centered on an extremely sensitive topic, the marriage forum ended up being one of the most productive dialogues I have been a part of. I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the compassion and productivity that even the most value-laden conversations can produce.

This is not to say that every dialogue will be so smooth—free of hiccups and full of kindness. But, it is to say that the reason that public process is so valuable and can contribute such tangible benefits is because of the atmosphere that occurs as a result of dialogue. The true impact that engaging in dialogue and deliberation can have communities, and the power of the participants that make these processes possible, never ceases to amaze me.

Facilitators as stakeholders: Suspending the bias

By Lauren Holder

4C Student Affiliate

In public deliberative processes, stakeholders are the persons who hold an interest, concern, or perspective that affects or is affected by the issue at hand.  With many forums I have facilitated or planned over the past two years, I have identified simultaneously as both a stakeholder in the conversation AND an unbiased facilitator of the process. The difficulty with this situation is that it is nearly impossible to remove one’s bias. One’s perspectives and beliefs are not merely erased when we step into the role of a facilitator. Therefore the challenge is to step into the neutral role and suspend all judgments, opinions, and personal values at the proverbial door where they may be picked up again later.

Each forum has been different. In Spring 2013 4C facilitated a conversation regarding natural gas fracking and its effects on the community. I had little to no opinion or knowledge on that matter, so my bias didn’t present any issue and I never thought much about it. However, when I facilitated a dialogue on Marriage and the State in Fall of 2014, I was faced with the challenge of feeling very strongly for the side of marriage equality and gay rights, but had to remain a neutral facilitator.

There is no simple way to put your beliefs on hold. Sometimes you are so tempted to blurt out your own perspectives that you feel the need to literally bite your tongue. There is no quick fix, trick, or simple strategy to suspending judgments. You simply must “do.” The way I accomplish the task is by reminding myself that this isn’t the only dialogue. I am not missing my one opportunity to be heard. I am, however, making sure that these participants are heard, and that is my most important role in that moment. I remind myself that my first and biggest priority is creating a safe and open space for others to feel comfortable sharing their own beliefs.

The biggest challenge to personal bias that I have seen through 4C was during the Students as Neighbors Forum this past November. ALL of the table facilitators were JMU undergraduate students from the SCOM department. ALL were clearly stakeholders in the conversation as they were, in fact, students. The discussion was quite literally about them, yet they were challenged to neutrally guide the conversation while certainly having an opinion on the matter.

The biggest obstacle here was to be upfront and honest with participants that while yes, facilitators were students, they were not there in the ‘student’ role. Facilitators had to balance the conversation between different perspectives so as not to appear to favor their peers’ perspective over another. The student facilitators accomplished this task with ease, while still seeming genuine and human. I was unbelievably impressed with their ability to juggle their many roles in that moment.
Neutrality is certainly easier said than done, but facilitators can learn the skill through practice and intentional thinking. Sometimes observing others accomplish neutrality can be an effective learning tool. Neutrality doesn’t mean lying or putting up a false front, because others will see through that persona. It just means suspending judgments for the time-being.