As a kid, Georgia Fair was taught not to trust law enforcement.
“Not that we were people who did things that were against the law, it’s just something that’s not going to help you as a black person,” she said.
But Fair, who attended a dialogue meeting between law enforcement and the community in Duval Heights in September, left feeling better about the police.
“We felt really pleased with the responses of the police officers that participated,” she said. “We felt that they were trying to provide a service that was beneficial.”
The Gainesville Police Department and the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding hope to continue to work on changing the minds of people like Fair through expanding the dialogues into the new year.
The police-community dialogues are aimed at addressing the questions and concerns of community members. These dialogues are mirrored after the police-youth dialogues, which work on building understanding between law enforcement and at-risk youths.
Will Halvosa, a retired GPD officer involved in carrying out the dialogues, said they are looking to schedule another one for January. So far, there have been sessions in the Duval Heights area of Gainesville and at the T.B. McPherson Center.
“The police (and the sheriff) are committed to do it in other areas around Alachua County,” RPCP president Heart Phoenix said.
Phoenix said going into troubled neighborhoods helps create community policing. The police get to know the people, and it creates a positive relationship between them.
“Most people don’t know because they feel safe enough as it is,” Phoenix said. “They have money, they live in good places, so they don’t even think about crime. But when you think about it, everyone gets touched somewhere along the way.”
She said she thinks dialogues are a way to create understanding.
Fair said she thinks the people who attended the meeting are more open to police officers in the community. She has seen people speaking up for the officers a little more.
“They’re not a stranger to us, and we’re not a stranger to them,” she said.
Jeffrey Weisberg, the executive director of RPCP, said by creating opportunities for new understanding, interaction and learning with those who are different, the community is strengthened.
“We, as an organization, are this entity that helps to coordinate, facilitate and focalize these peace-building initiatives,” Weisberg said. “We believe that every community would benefit from a group doing similar things.”
Halvosa said a lot of the community issues are not entirely with law enforcement, but community members default to 911 for any concerns.
The purpose of bringing the dialogues to the community is to hear from people who have issues in their neighborhoods, he said.
It is important that the community members feel like they are being respected, he said.
“We like to keep it private, where we have 30 concerned citizens and 15 officers,” Halvosa said.
He said the relationship between the community members and the officers is paramount.
“We want to be involved in every layer of these improvements,” Halvosa said.
This long-term plan is part of the initiative to become engrained in the community and promote a better understanding of what the community expects from its officers, he said.
As for Fair, she said she would definitely attend another session.
“This is something that is needed more in our community,” she said.