Seated in the pews of Union Valley Baptist Church, about 100 people gathered Monday night, August 26, for the latest in a series of Community-Police Relations Forums hosted around the city. Uniformed and plain-clothes officers, church leaders, and concerned citizens met to discuss their experiences with law enforcement.
“We’ve gone to Frayser, we’ve gone to Orange Mound, and now we’re in South Memphis-Soulsville,” says Melissa Monie, a facilitator with the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center who organized the event. Monie has helped guide the CPR Forums for the past 16 months. “We want community members to look officers in the face and say, ‘I can trust them.’ How do we get there?”
For the first hour of the program, the crowd passed around a microphone for individuals to share their personal experiences with police. Stories ranged from concerns about delayed response times to relief at the sight of police escorts for children walking to school. After each story, a team from Playback Memphis performed a short interpretive piece to dramatize the experience.
“My hope is that we show this community that more than South Memphis cares about South Memphis,” says Jodie Mack, who volunteered to become a facilitator at the event. “It’s going to take all of us to make it better.”
“As a community member, it’s important to me to know that this is happening,” South Memphis resident Cherisse Scott said. “Community members and police officers can come together and solve local issues.”
The program has the support of the Memphis Police Department and Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. “We are out here to make a difference and to be visible,” said Shelby County Sheriff’s Office Chief Inspector Larry Hill, who works in the Community Operations Bureau. “We want to show that their concerns are our concerns.”
In the second hour of the program, officers led small break-out sessions where groups were asked to reflect on their visions for community-police relations and how best to accomplish them. The focus was on “solutions,” as officers fielded questions on everything from 911 calls to how to file complaints about police harassment.
“I don’t care that you have a badge. That’s not an excuse to disrespect someone,” said a female MPD officer, who wished to remain anonymous. “People don’t have to be afraid. At events like this, everybody’s talking, and we’re actually communicating.” Another officer suggested dashcam video recorders for MPD patrol cars, which the Shelby County Commission has funded for Sheriff’s Office vehicles.
The CPR Forum team have organized three public forums around Memphis so far and will continue hosting them throughout the year. At the end of the series, organizers will develop an agenda for reform based on the hundreds of surveys gathered from each event.
“This is a long-term project. We’re not going anywhere,” said Memphis Police Officer Colin Wilson, who has co-facilitated with Monie for the last 16 months. “We’re developing a long-term plan for our city to bring a better balance between community and law enforcement.”
* The next Community-Police Relations Forum will be held from 5:30-8:00pm on Monday, September 30, at the Hickory Hill Community Center at 3910 Ridgeway Road.