Local leaders discuss consequences of Ferguson unrest

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Nick Crow
Friday, August 22, 2014

JANESVILLE—Janesville and Beloit police work to build relationships in their communities to prevent the kind of unrest that rocked Ferguson, Missouri, after a white officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, the Janesville and Beloit police chiefs said Friday.

"It's all about building those relationships and building that trust with your community so when these bad things happen, you've got that foundation of trust and a relationship so you can work through it together as a community," Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore said.

Moore was among four Rock County officials who Friday discussed on the WCLO Radio program "Your Talk Show" how Janesville or Beloit would handle a crisis such as the one in Ferguson.

Moore said training for officers in Janesville includes implicit bias training, which teaches officers that people can have biases they may not even be aware of. The training teaches them to recognize those biases and work through them, Moore said.

"I think we are far better than we were decades ago," Moore said. "We're trying constantly to get our officers out into the field making those connections with our citizens. It's a constant focus of policing and community policing, to be out in our neighborhoods with our citizens building those relationships.

"I think we're far ahead. Are we done?  Absolutely not. There's lots more work to be done," Moore said.

Tensions in Ferguson had been simmering before a white police officer Aug. 9 shot and killed an 18-year-old black man, said Wanda Sloan, human resources diversity and staff development specialist at Blackhawk Technical College.

"The real issue is, in my opinion, structural, it's systemic," Sloan said. "This has been building up over time. I would think it's some of the same in our particular county. So, if there's embers out there that are burning and we don't realize it, then BOOM, there's this big explosion. It won't be just a one-day occurrence because this event happened on this day."

Beloit Police Chief Norm Jacobs said his department is constantly working to develop relationships with the community so if an incident such as the one in Ferguson does happen, residents will trust police in the city.

"I hope people judge their police departments not just at how they deal with a crisis, like in Ferguson, but they are also looking at their police departments on a daily basis to see how they take care of business everyday, because that's how they take care of their business in times of crisis," Jacobs said.

Janesville City Council member Sam Liebert, who is biracial, said his experience growing up in Janesville was pretty positive, but he understands the sensitivity of race relations for some people.

“I think race is a very sensitive issue to some folks," Liebert said. "It strikes a deep nerve in African-Americans in particular."

Liebert said race, socioeconomics or even biases learned from parents can play into stereotypes.

"I think most of us think we live in a good community and wouldn't want to see this happen here," Liebert said. "But there's always more work to be done in our community."

Moore said the handling of volatile situations by local police can be difficult and can lead to potential problems. That is why his department has a policy of releasing as much information as possible as soon as an incident occurs.

"I think that tends to end a lot of speculation," Moore said.

The department assigns a police liaison to the family of the victim and the family of the suspect to keep the lines of communication open and progress of the case known.

In regards to police militarization, Moore said 99 percent of the time his officers are on the streets in a regular police car wearing their regular uniform. But there are instances that additional gear, vehicles or weaponry are needed, he said.

"There are times law enforcement needs to keep our people more safe," Moore said. "It's all about keeping our officers safe and our community safe. There are times what we have to do as law enforcement and what we have to do as police officers isn't very pretty."

Each panelist had advice for how communities can avoid an incident such as the one in Ferguson.

Moore said trust and relationships are key.

Jacobs said the first story heard is rarely the whole story and urged residents to listen to all viewpoints before making judgements.

Liebert said race relations and police relations always can be improved in the community.

Sloan said people in positions of authority need to avoid being "tone deaf," listen to the public and have open conversations with them.

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