ELKHART — The violent July 3 confrontation between an Elkhart policeman and a man on Garfield Avenue didn’t end in anyone’s death.
There weren’t any riots or demonstrations.
Still, some advocates for the south central neighborhood where the incident occurred see parallels with the seeming circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Brown, 18, at the hands of a Ferguson, Mo., police officer. In both incidents, the advocates here say, there was a lacking positive relationship between police and the black communities they serve.
A quick visit to Garfield Avenue
The apparent disconnect between the Elkhart Police Department and at least some in the south central area of the city comes through on talking to just a few people along Garfield Avenue.
"It’s like open season,“ said Aaron Harper, describing the vulnerability he feels to law enforcement here. It’s like it doesn’t matter what south central residents have to say about their dealings with police. The police view will always take precedent.
Harper, who’s African-American, was sitting in his truck on Garfield Avenue, taking a break while helping a friend move belongings from one home to another.
Sararina Woods, a recent high school graduate, was sitting on the porch of a Garfield Avenue home with several friends, teens and African-Americans.
"They feel they can just give us all types of tickets,” she said.
Her brother, in fact, got a ticket last month in the wake of the July 3 incident because he didn’t have a bell on his bicycle, which left Woods incredulous. “Petty tickets,” she calls them.
Brown, who was black, was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer after an encounter on a street there. The young man was unarmed and the incident, the focus of many questions and ongoing investigations, has fueled days of protests by demonstrators who say the police, who wore riot gear and brought out military-grade equipment, acted in excess.
"That has not happened here and I’m hoping and praying that it doesn’t,“ said Rod Roberson. Roberson, a member of the Elkhart City Council, helps lead Nine Blocks, a group formed to advocate for the older, more racially diverse area south of downtown Elkhart, including the zone where the July 3 incident occurred.
Nevertheless, he noted the seeming disconnect between police both here and in Ferguson and the African-American communities each police department serves.
"That’s why we as a community need to build relationships that give us the ability to work out situations before they go to the extreme,” said Roberson, who is African-American.
Garfield Avenue is home to a concentration of African-Americans, and the incident last month occurred after Elkhart Police Cpl. Dustin Young directed Reese Haithcox, 21, who is African-American, to clear the street because he was blocking traffic. Haithcox, in response, attacked Young, fracturing his eye socket before he was finally subdued and arrested after more officers were called to the scene.
In the days that followed, police beefed up patrols on and around Garfield, which led to cries of harassment and heavy-handedness from neighbors. The complaints were the focus of a pair of public meetings, and a community group called the Elkhart Community Roundtable on Thursday, Aug. 15, issued a list of proposed changes to improve relations between south central residents and police.
’SENSE OF DISTRUST’
In comparing the Garfield Avenue incident and aftermath and Ferguson, one of the things that sticks out for Leighton Johnson, active in the Elkhart Community Roundtable, is the lack of minority officers on the Elkhart and Ferguson police forces. Media reports say Ferguson’s police department is predominantly white though the city is predominantly black while Johnson knows of only a “handful” of minority officers on the Elkhart police force.
The disparity, Johnson maintains, gives rise to a measure of suspicion in the African-American community here. “There’s still that sense of distrust,” he said. Those living in the south central neighborhood and police “don’t know each other.”
Among the proposals issued Thursday by the Elkhart Community Roundtable are calls for hiring of more minority officers and more “diversity training” in the Elkhart Police Department.
Johnson maintains that deeper connections between a community and police can potentially head off the type of incidents that occurred on Garfield Avenue and Ferguson. If more locals are personally acquainted with Elkhart officers, they’ll be more apt to intervene on their behalf to help defuse situations like the July 3 incident, before things really escalate.
Roberson echoed that. If police know who does and doesn’t belong in a neighborhood, it’ll help them do better policing. They’ll personally know locals, generating a stronger sense of trust.
"I know without the type of relationships you need ... it will happen here,“ Roberson said, alluding to events in Ferguson. ”It will happen in communities without relationships.“