ELKHART — It's time to knock down walls built in the past, Elkhart Chief of Police Chris Snyder said at a Thursday evening community discussion about race relations in the city.
"Whether that community is dealing with youth, whether that is a Hispanic community, whether that's an African-American community, regardless of where that comes from, it's hard for us to break into some of those communities," said Snyder, to open a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters of Elkhart County at Ivy Tech Community College.
Some community members pointed out that police relations with minorities might improve if the Elkhart Police Department had more minority officers.
Out of the 137 officers employed by the Elkhart Police Department in 2018, 123 were men, and 116 of those men where white, while six were African-American and one was Middle Eastern. The 14 female officers were all white.
"We don't get a lot of minority applicants," said Snyder. "I don't know if that's fear, if that's 'I don't want to police the neighborhood I come from.' There's a lot of different things that we hear on that."
But among the steps that are being taken to increase enthusiasm for joining the force among minorities is going into communities and getting to know people better. Thursday night, Snyder said, EPD officers were in the Pierre Moran neighborhood recruiting and speaking with residents.
The chief said it can be difficult for the police department to break through, but one way to do it is to team up with local organizations that are trusted by minorities.
Darial Sterling, cultural and linguistic competence coordinator at The Source, said it's important to have conversations, even if they are unpleasant, about the traumatic things that have happened to African-American and Hispanic families.
"The fact that you are here tonight is a great thing," he told the mostly white audience.
Sterling said people need to practice cultural humility.
"You sit down and you have a conversation with somebody that is totally different from you, totally different background, totally different places," he said. "If we are in a position of power, we think we have the answer for other people. Well, cultural humility says, 'I don't have the answer for you. You're the best expert at who you are.'"
Tara Morris, who is the executive director of the Elkhart County Minority Health Coalition, said there has been some change for the better over the last few decades, but it's not enough.
"It's still here today," she said about what she called hidden racism.
Eventually, it shows itself, she said.
"We all have some type of prejudice that we have to deal with. Unless we come to an understanding of that prejudice, no matter what form it is, we don't really move forward," said Morris.
Connie Caiceros, former director of the Center for Community Justice current third-year law student at Western Michigan University, encouraged the audience to use a Harvard-created tool to help realize implicit biases.
The tool, called Project Implicit, can be found at www.implicit.harvard.edu and can help identify hidden biases concerning race, religion, gender and other subjects.
She said that, as a white person, it can be difficult to even realize if there is an issue with race relations or discrimination in your community.
"I personally feel like I get to navigate my community with a lot of privilege, and so my experiences overall, personally, are positive," she said.
But through relationships with people in the community who do not have the same privilege, Caiceros said, she knows her own experience doesn't tell the whole truth.
"They would not say the same thing or that they had had the same experience growing up here," she said.
Building those relationships with people who do not look like you can be inconvenient because, even today society, is somewhat segregated.
"We go where we go," said Caiceros.
A community member asked Snyder how much training police officers go through to better understand their own implicit biases. The chief said that is limited, but that meeting people in relation to the Thursday night discussion had started conversations on how that could be improved.
Toward the end of the discussion, Elkhart Board of Public Safety member Jean Mayes brought back the topic of how to get more minorities to join the police department.
"Now we have those children who run from police officers because they know all the bad stuff," she said. "How do we build that culture that will call young African-American children to say 'I want to be a policeman when I grow up?'"
Snyder said when children see officers doing the right thing in their community, that helps. One way to do that is to increase how much school resource officers interact with students.
During Snyder's term as police chief, which began in January, the department has increased its community policing, having more officers going to neighborhood association meetings and other community events.
He suggested that parents can also help by not teaching kids that police officers are scary by saying things like "If you don't behave, I'll have that officer arrest you."
But it's also necessary to teach officers to not be afraid, he said.
"A lot of times we get this fear that everybody is out to get the police department, and that's not true," said Snyder.
It's important for officers to be cautious when they go to a burglary call, he said, but officers need to be better at de-escalating when the call is over.
"That's one of the things that we want to start putting into our training," he said. "Once you get there, and you know you're OK, yeah you have to keep your guard up, but you can be human."
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