Area leaders: Incoming police chief should sit down with community

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 18, 2016

By Shavonne Walker

SALISBURY — Area leaders are taking to heart incoming Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes’ declaration that he’d love to partner with the community in order to facilitate change, but say they hope most of all he listens to residents.

In the last year, the Salisbury Police Department has undergone a structural reorganization and firings, has a number of unsolved murders to contend with, and, coupled with the recent retirement of Police Chief Rory Collins, has created distrust in a community begging for a better dialogue with police.

Area leaders have offered suggestions of ways the new chief can work toward building a better relationship with the community.

Business community

Bounce City owners Guanah and Jehan Davis have created a multicultural coalition made up of business leaders, clergy, activists, and others in the community that meets regularly to create ways to facilitate youth-oriented events and forums.

“There is a big disconnect with the police department, the black community and the youth,” Jehan Davis said.

She said historically black people don’t come to the downtown area because “they don’t feel comfortable.”

“Police get intimidated by groups of black people — I’ll just say minorities in general. There’s not a good partnership between them and the youth. We are missing out on economic growth because there’s no spending power,” she said.

The new chief will have to be “proactively engaged in the community, particularly on the West End. He will need to make them feel he is hearing their voices,” Davis said.

She suggested setting up youth councils or that Stokes walk the streets. Davis said in the past police have “talked at” the people instead of “talking to them.”

“There’s no reason we should have a gang problem and these unsolved murders. He’s got some tough challenges ahead of him,” she said, but they can be turned into positives.

“He can definitely forge a better relationship — one by addressing the family members of these unsolved murders. These are things he’s inheriting,” Davis said.

She hopes to see Stokes “engage business leaders, community leaders and be more engaging than historically,” she said.

“The only way he will know what issues the youth are facing is to get out and meet them,” she said.

Davis said she’d be willing to offer Bounce City as a place where teens can have coffee and doughnuts with the chief for an informal meeting so they can talk about issues they face.

She’d also like to see more minorities hired at the police department.

She feels Stokes should “make it a goal to diversify the Salisbury Police with more Latinos, Asians and African-Americans — people who make up the representation of the community,” Davis said.

She’d also like to see Stokes write letters to the editor in the Salisbury Post or regular columns that discuss his ideas and the direction of the Police Department.

She suggested he join with Nightcrawlers, a faith-based grassroots organization that goes into local communities to talk and pray with residents.

Clergy community

Bradley Taylor, senior pastor of Outreach Christian Ministries International, was host to the first Community Conversations where city leaders met with residents to exchange ideas and ask questions about recent city decisions.

“I definitely think community relations is going to be vital,” Taylor said.

He said the police chief could benefit from building relationships with clergy and community leaders.

“I’d like to see accountability on both sides,” he said.

Taylor said he’s concerned that police are looked at as “the bad guy.”

There needs to be a shift in perspective, and “the only way is to deal with the real issues that have transpired to create that big gap in the opinion or feeling of the community in relation to police,” Taylor said.

Taylor suggests Stokes meet with community leaders. “It’s important for him to personally get the heartbeat of the city; to get firsthand the soul and heartbeat and hear the cries of the people,” he said.

He feels once Stokes meets with the community and hears their concerns it could make his job a lot easier.

Taylor said Stokes is coming into a community where there are a lot of unsolved murders and a lot of distrust.

“Partnership is going to be key,” he said, and so is “transparency.”

He added the biggest thing for Stokes will also be to establish a culture of how the officers conducts themselves.

“The culture has to change,” Taylor said.

Leadership community

City Councilmember Ken Hardin has been very vocal about the discord between the black community and the Police Department.

“I’m disappointed in the response in the city last week. I don’t think people in leadership in the city truly understand and recognize the pain and trauma associated with what happened. Until you really give credence and validity, you can’t begin to heal and build relationships,” he said.

The city issued a statement following the shooting of two black men in Minnesota and Louisiana and the shooting of police in Dallas. Stokes also issued a statement saying the situations were tragic and he looked forward to partnering with Salisbury citizens.

“They don’t take the time to see there are underlying issues going on,” Hardin said. “When they give a patronizing approach then black people feel what’s the point of working with the city. I don’t feel there isn’t a general concern, it doesn’t impact them. Nobody understands that, but they don’t want to take the time to understand.”
He believes Stokes is already coming into his position at a disadvantage because the people of this community didn’t have a role in the decision to hire him.

“First, I think he’s going to have to overcome an obstacle and hurdle that he didn’t create. There is a lot of discontent with the way he was chosen,” Hardin said.

He advises Stokes talk to  different segments of the community, saying he should get out and meet with more than one demographic at a time that is convenient for the majority.

“There is more to people’s frustrations than anger. Why are they angry? He should be receptive to criticism,” he said.

Downtown community

“The first thing is to open himself up to public forums. Just listening to what the community has with no preconceived ideas,” said Paula Bohland, executive director of Downtown Salisbury Inc.

She’d like to see the chief and Police Department be supportive of the business environment, “make sure it’s safe and make sure the people utilizing it feel safe.”

Bohland suggested using technology like a panic button or emergency call boxes downtown as a new and innovative way to show police presence. The buttons would be similar to the call boxes on college campuses across the U.S.

She said she’s heard really good things about Stokes and the relationship he had within the last community he served in Lynchburg, Va.

“I look forward to continuing the partnership with the Salisbury Police and downtown,” Bohland said.

Contact reporter Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253.