Monday, October 20, 2014

Elkhart police, West Garfield residents need to establish trust in one another

People need to be honest with each other and with the police, or they’ll never understand their differences. But in the end, they must insist on a relationship that emphasizes peacekeeping and mutual respect over brute force and suspicion.

Posted on July 12, 2014 at 8:36 p.m.

The exchange at 0:53. That’s the moment that both transfixed and frightened a city.

As police officers move 21-year-old Reese Haithcox toward a patrol car, he resists and screams obscenities. Police drive Haithcox to the ground.

A crowd forms around the police. An officer confronts a man shooting a cellphone video of the arrest.

"Get the f*** back or I'll f***ing tase you too!” he shouts. “Get the f*** back now! Get the f*** back now! Get the f*** back!”

Confused, angry people lined the sidewalks in the 100 block of West Garfield Avenue, south of downtown Elkhart. At that moment, 53 seconds into the cellphone video, a neighborhood could’ve easily turned on the police and rioted.

To its credit, it didn’t. But the risk of violence continues, on West Garfield and elsewhere, until we can build a stronger sense of trust in one another.

We don’t know everything that happened Thursday, July 3, after Cpl. Dustin Young encountered Haithcox. A probable cause affidavit states that Young saw Haithcox standing in the street, blocking traffic, and ordered him to move. Haithcox reportedly refused and swore at Young.

When Young got out of his patrol car and asked Haithcox for identification, Haithcox knocked him down, punched him in the face more than a dozen times and tried to take Young’s sidearm.

Haithcox ran, but Young and a second officer tackled him. Young tased Haithcox twice before they could get him in handcuffs and walk him back to the squad car.

By that point, the red and blue lights from EPD cruisers lit up West Garfield like a Fourth of July fireworks show. Police slapped at the cellphone of the man who was shooting video and shoved him across the street. Bystanders heckled police.

Young suffered a fractured eye socket. Haithcox is jailed on preliminary felony charges of aggravated battery, disarming a law enforcement officer, three counts of battery on a police officer and resisting arrest.

But neighborhood residents claim the incident didn’t end that night. One woman said police increased their presence on West Garfield for the rest of the weekend, writing up people for minor infractions and swearing at residents.

“They've been mad ever since that officer got beat up,” Lottie Smart told an Elkhart Truth reporter.

Asked during Monday’s city council meeting about reports of EPD retaliation, Assistant Police Chief Laura Koch said that officers “have been down there in reference to complaints received.”

EPD officers issued three citations in the West Garfield area last weekend — one for jaywalking, one for not using a sidewalk and one for riding a bicycle without a bell.

Police felt threatened July 3 on West Garfield, but because of the way a few officers acted that night, so did the neighborhood.

Neighborhood residents and police must rebuild their relationship. The process starts this week.

Representatives of the Elkhart County Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance arranged a public meeting this Friday between West Garfield residents and police officials.

“I just want both sides of the city to come together and to have a conversation about what’s going on,” Dannell Brown, pastor of Agape Missionary Baptist Church, told an Elkhart Truth reporter.

And during a meeting Tuesday, July 15, at the Historic Roosevelt Center, neighborhood residents plan to discuss violence and other issues they face.

People need to be honest with each other and with the police, or they’ll never understand their differences. But in the end, they must insist on a relationship that emphasizes peacekeeping and mutual respect over brute force and suspicion.

No community outreach program can guarantee a police officer’s safety, in Elkhart or anywhere else. Still, in a neighborhood where police and residents trust one another, shared concern reduces the risk of violence — people intervene on behalf of those they value, whether that’s an Elkhart police officer or a person on West Garfield Avenue.

We need to get beyond 0:53 in the video. As a community, we need to build a relationship with Elkhart police based on mutual respect.

West Garfield Avenue can show us the way.

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