State groups strengthen police, community ties

LANSING — As communities across the country confront mistrust between police and citizens, organizations across Michigan are working to build relationships officials hope can avoid unrest.

For two decades, parts of the state have formed trust-building initiatives to ensure lines of communication are open to address incidents such as police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, or North Charleston, South Carolina.

“It’s very important that these relationships are being built and maintained because it’s very challenging to build a relationship in the midst of a crisis,” said Patrick Miles Jr., a U.S. attorney who serves as co-chair on the Grand Rapids Advocates and Leaders for Police and Community Trust. “It can be detrimental if no relationship is there.”

The group, one of five so-called ALPACTs across Michigan, includes law enforcement officials, prosecutors, local government officials, faith-based leaders, advocacy groups and individuals from the local community. Other regions with ALPACTs are Detroit, Saginaw, Flint and Benton Harbor.

“The goal is to develop relationships with different community members,” said Matt Wesaw, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “Anybody who is concerned with the welfare of their community was invited to the table to sit around and talk about any issue.”

Members of ALPACTs believe these relationships are crucial in handling situations that face the community.

“I think it’s a great preventive measure,” said Marques Beene, lead consultant and strategic planner for the Grand Rapids branch of the NAACP. “You want to have everyone on the same page so hopefully you can put a fire out before it’s burning too hot.”

In 2013, a white Dearborn Heights resident shot and killed an African-American woman who knocked on his front door following a car crash. Community activists began preparing for civic protests, but first a local community leader met with police officials.

“The captain said, ‘Give us a couple of days to figure out what happened,’ and the community leader accepted it and gave them a couple of days,” Wesaw said.

Following the investigation, the shooter was arrested and subsequently convicted of murder.

“The community was not happy with the killing, but there was no public destruction or outcry,” Wesaw said. “That was, in my opinion, a direct result of that trusting relationship that had been built.”

Michigan’s existing ALPACT organizations were formed prior to the police shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, but in light of continued shootings and resulting protests around the country, Michigan officials are working to grow the number of organizations in the state.

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights is looking at expanding ALPACT activity into five larger cities in the state, according to Wesaw. He wouldn’t specify which cities until agreements had been worked out locally.

As co-chair of the Grand Rapids ALPACT, Miles believes other cities should consider forming similar groups.

“Even if they already have decent relationships between law enforcement and citizens, it can only be helpful to have people sitting down and discussing misperceptions and understanding what is going on in the community,” he said.

While members of the community and law enforcement may not always agree on the best approach to a situation, they’re usually working toward the same ends.

“Law enforcement and communities share the same goals, they just have different means of getting there,” Miles said. “They want justice, security, peace, and neighborhoods to be free of violence.”

Beene, of the NAACP, shared this sentiment.

“I think we all, deep down, care about justice, collaboration and public safety,” Beene said.

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