The shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Mo., this month has led to weeks of clashes between protesters and police in that city, and a national discussion about the relationship between law enforcement officials and the residents they serve.
An ongoing dialogue in the community can be key to building a trust that would prevent a similar situation in Galveston County, local police chiefs and African-American community leaders said this week.
For the last several years, community leaders on the mainland and island have met regularly with local officials to discuss issues and promote a mutual respect and understanding, the Rev. James Daniels said.
Texas City Police Chief Robert Burby and La Marque Police Chief Randall Aragon are expected to attend Rising Star Baptist Church on Sunday for a celebration of the church’s 100th anniversary and to continue that dialogue, Daniels said.
The recent upheaval in Missouri only drives home the importance of a respectful two-way line of communication with police, he said.
“We don’t want that to happen here in our community,” Daniels said.
Leaders are focused on building a strong relationship with police in some of the county’s “civil rights hot spots” of the 1960s such as Galveston, La Marque and Texas City, Daniels said.
An open line of communication allows residents to address possible issues with police before a situation can escalate, he said.
“We want people to know there is an avenue where they can speak directly,” Daniels said.
The exchange goes both ways, and can give residents insight into the policies and procedures of the police department, Burby said.
Officers are members of the communities they serve, and are equally invested.
“It won’t be a police thing or a citizen thing, it’s a community thing,” Burby said. “This is not a new innovation. This is good, old-fashioned police work.”
There always will be points of disagreement, but regular discussions between community leaders and police breaks down the barriers that can lead to misinformation or mistrust, he said.
Leon Phillips, president of the Galveston County Coalition for Justice, said the Galveston Police Department has, in recent years, opened itself up to input from residents and stakeholders in the community.
Phillips, a member of the police department’s civilian review board, said Galveston officials have made an effort to collaborate with local chapters of organizations such as the NAACP and League of United Latin American Citizens.
Problems persist, but the relationship between the police department and island residents has improved because of regular meetings with the police chief, he said.
It requires participation on both sides, Phillips said. The department has to police itself, but residents also play a role in becoming involved in fighting issues such as crime.
“You can’t be outside of the system and make the system work for you,” Phillips said.
Trust between Galveston residents and the police department has grown in recent years, but it’s not yet enough, said David Miller, president of the Galveston chapter of the NAACP.
“We could have a Ferguson here,” he said.
The department needs to closely monitor the behavior of officers to increase accountability, and residents on the island need to become more involved, he said.
On one occasion, Miller said he was invited by the police chief to see video recordings of an incident that had caused a man to allege mistreatment by a Galveston officer. The video proved to Miller that in this case, the officer had not behaved inappropriately.
Progress has been gradual, but an open line of communication allows both police and residents to get the full story, Miller said.
“Is it working overnight?” he asked. “No. But it’s working.”
Galveston Police Chief Henry Porretto pointed to the department’s “protect with respect” community-policing initiative as a sign of law-enforcement efforts to improve interactions with residents.
“The days of the strong-arm policeman, being a tough guy, they’re done,” Porretto said.
An ongoing exchange of information between police and the community can help prevent tragedy, Porretto said.
“Without that dialogue, Ferguson, Mo., could be a reality in Galveston, Dickinson, Texas City, La Marque,” he said.