Before COVID-19 and the most recent call for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a group of citizens in Fayetteville, Arkansas brought together a cross section of their community to have Living Room Conversations about Police – Community Relations.
“Our first choice was Police-Community Relations no doubt because there is so much in the news about police / community issues,” said host Pattie Williams.
Pattie and fellow organizers who are part of the Building Beloved Community Program at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, reached out to the police department, their congregation, and the wider community to invite them into conversation.
58 people, including the Chief and Assistant Chief of police and seven officers, one City Council member, and a diverse cross section of the community, participated in seven conversations throughout the month of October 2019.
Police Chief Mike Reynolds said that “these Living Room Conversations provided my department with a unique opportunity to interact with community members in a non-enforcement environment to reduce any barriers and biases that may have existed on both sides.”
“Living Room Conversations,” he continued, “is one of many factors that helps me gauge whether or not our police actions reflect our community values.”
During the conversation, university professor Lucy Brown described the trauma she experienced at the hands of police. She was pulled over, hand-cuffed, bruised, and excessively interrogated for driving with a broken headlight.
She came away from the conversation surprised at how “minimal [police] training is for a position with so much authority and power over a person’s life.”
Reflecting on the conversation, Lucy said that “even though [the police] are doing diversity training, which is good, I can’t imagine why society allows a person with so little training to have so much power in today’s world given what we know about racism and bias.”
The conversation helped white participant Dale Heath understand his bias towards the police in his community.
“I had anticipated an informing conversation, but not that this exchange would show me my own bias, i.e., that I had allowed reports of profiling to preempt [my] trust and goodwill,” he said. “I’d been harboring resentment about policing that was ‘running the show.’ What a welcome insight!”
Co-organizer Karen Hodges saw the fruit of these conversations a few months later. In December, a Fayetteville police officer was fatally shot ten times in the head while waiting in his car for his fellow officer to begin their beat.
Several of the conversation participants came together to send a message of support to the entire police department in the wake of this tragedy. This message, for Hodges, “is a powerful validation of the Living Room Conversation model to build understanding and relationships.”
As our nation grapples with re-imagining community safety and public health, the Fayetteville example shows us how structured conversation can illuminate the fertile reality of our complexities, diverse perspectives, and experiences.
Having conversations like Police-Community Relations with many stakeholders reminds us that the more people are involved in creating our shared future, the more our concerns can be addressed at the foundational level.
After all, there are no easy answers. Our universe contains contradictions and multitudes, and so do we.