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Police under a microscope

Salisbury Police may be wondering; are they too tough, or not tough enough?
Residents have complained for several months that the police are not visible or active enough to keep the predominantly black West End neighborhood safe from break-ins and gun violence. This week, on the other hand, the NAACP and others brought up accusations of overly aggressive behavior from officers. Two pastors said they were treated gruffly, and the threat of lawsuits from other citizens has been mentioned.
Meanwhile, the shooting death of a young black man by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri — and disastrous handling of the incident by local authorities — have ramped up racial tensions and questions about how law enforcement operates in 21st century America. Police find themselves caught in a vortex of whirling accusations, high emotions and impossible expectations.
The police are not the only ones under the microscope. Also facing scrutiny locally are the elected leaders charged with running the city and overseeing the Police Department. How actively are City Council members listening and responding to citizens’ concerns?
Salisbury leaders have begun to address West End concerns. Police Chief Rory Collins restructured patrols to put more officers in the neighborhood, appointed a community relations officer and started operating a satellite police station at the Miller Center a few hours each week. That’s a good start. Now people are unhappy that a Salvation Army program set up to provide after-school care and other programs for youth at the Miller Center is crowding out neighborhood activities — something that may be more a failure of communication than anything else. Time will tell.
As for the NAACP complaints, City Council has to pay close attention and respond appropriately. It’s all too easy for the NAACP to call for the police chief’s resignation. That gets attention, but it does nothing to shed light on the alleged problems in the department. Certain officers may indeed be too aggressive with the people they stop; the recent apprehension and fingerprinting of a woman whose license plate had been switched is another example. As West End residents have suggested, officers may need better training in interacting with the public.
But officers should also know that citizens value and respect the job they take on, even at times like this. Maybe that’s why we set such high standards for police conduct. The men and women in law enforcement face huge risks every day. Without them, there would be no law and order in Salisbury. It is out of respect for them that the city must investigate critics’ claims and make sure the entire department balances vigilance with being servants and protectors of the community.

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