Fairfield Twp.’s community conversation tonight will be the latest effort by an area police department to improve ties with residents.
The Strategies For Youth community engagement event at 6 p.m. today at Shafer’s Run Community Park on Vonnie Vale Court is designed to be a meaningful conversation among the community’s younger citizens — pre-teens and teens up to 18 — and their families.
“We always like open communication with our community and maybe it can dispel some of the myths, rumors that exist out there, and show some of the positive approaches by police, by law enforcement,” said Fairfield Twp. Police Chief Robert Chabali.
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Conversations like the one tonight in Fairfield Twp. have been happening all around the country in the wake of protests following the death of George Floyd of Minneapolis, who died on May 25 in police custody after an officer placed a knee on his neck.
“We’re open to whatever they want to ask, and address it,” said Chabali.
Community engagement like Fairfield Twp.’s Strategies For Youth — which was inspired by after a conversation between friends and township residents Shelia Simmons and Denise Hayes — is the latest example of area police departments working to strengthen its rapport with residents. Departments regularly either participate in or hold National Night Out events, interact at community festivals and events, or conduct citizens police academies.
These conversations and engagements are more important now than ever, said West Chester Twp. police Chief Joel Herzog.
“I think it’s absolutely essential that we engage in further conversations, especially with the youth,” he said. “They have a different perspective on life because they’re looking at it through different eyes and fewer experiences, so to them, they don’t have other incidents to compare this to, and to them it might be much more traumatic or impactful.”
Herzog said his department also recently had a group of teens and young adults at the station, asking and answering questions.
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Training is a big part of ensuring people are treated fairly across the board, said Herzog.
“It’s a matter of checking your own records, and being in touch with the officers, so you find out the reasons for traffic stops, or what the reasons they’re having contact with people,” he said.
The conversation by Simmons and Hayes came from worry as mothers of Black teenagers about to take their driver’s license test. They then reached out to the township police department.
The goals of Strategies For Youth are simple, Simmons and Hayes said: show the youth how to interact with police if there is an encounter, and police officers need to show they are not people to be feared.
“We want our kids to have tools, and be equipped to come to home safely when they are out and about,” said Hayes, the principal at Fairfield North Elementary in Fairfield Twp. “We’re concerned with all the things that are going on in the world and we want to be proactive.”
Simmons said personally she’s never had a negative interaction with the police, but understands she doesn’t share the same experiences with others. When talking with other parents of African-American children, she said a common question is how do they prepare them for encounters with law enforcement, which doesn’t mean they’re doing something criminal.
“You could have just made a bad turn or you might have been speeding a little bit,” she said.
But Simmons said what’s been reported on in the national media “is just so heinous, so extreme that I think that is what resonates more, especially for younger people. They just see what they see and form an opinion.”
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