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Editorial: Spotlight on police chief

Jerry Stokes does not take over as chief of the Salisbury Police Department until July 18, but he was forthcoming last week when asked about the ambush of Dallas police officers and the police killings of two black men that preceded it.

“As chief of the Salisbury Police Department, I am concerned about the safety of every officer and every citizen we serve,” Stokes said in a lengthy statement sent to the Post. The fact that he responded to the paper’s request for comment is a promising step forward. Some decline to comment when tensions are high.

Stokes is coming from Lynchburg, Va., a city more than twice Salisbury’s size. There 32 years, he leaves as deputy chief with a broad range of experience, from internal affairs manager to street crimes suppression team leader.

He comes to Salisbury at a critical moment for the entire country. The past week has been so full of tragedy and drama that the leader of the state NAACP, the Rev. William Barber, called it “Shakespearean.” Law enforcement is in a glaring spotlight, and Salisbury’s next police chief has to be there too.

Stokes did not shy away from touchy topics in his statement. Of the two officer-involved killings, he said, “not one of these officers reported for their shifts with the intent or desire to have to take another person’s life.” He said the situations were tragic and he would wait for all the facts before forming an opinion on the officers’ actions.

Stokes said it was tragic that the Dallas demonstration which followed — an opportunity to for people to exercise the constitutional right of free speech — was used to facilitate violence. The sniper attacked officers overseeing the peaceful demonstration.

So what does all this mean for Salisbury? In a city where residents have begged for more open dialogue with police and better protection for their neighborhoods, what signals did Stokes send about what kind of chief he will be?

There was promising talk of bringing people together. “I would ask the Salisbury community to be our partner, appreciate the tough job these officers are doing well every day, and work with us in building this community.”

This has been a critical year for law and order in Salisbury even before the national events of last week. The city has a string of unsolved murders and too many vacancies on the force. It may never have been harder to be a police officer, let alone a chief. If the people of Salisbury will work with him, Chief Jerry Stokes could make a huge difference.

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