Community advisory teams aim to build stronger connections between law enforcement and minorities

In late May, George Floyd, a black man from Minnesota, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes.

Just over a week later, a group of concerned Springfield clergy and local law enforcement heads announced they would partner to form the Community Law Enforcement Advisory Team, designed to “develop and advance minority input in the standards by which we police our community,” according to the initial statement released about the group.

Now, a month later, the team has had multiple meetings and is working to build structure, add key members, and work toward future goals.

Carl Ruby, senior pastor for Central Christian Church, first convened a group of about 20 local pastors and soon invited Springfield Police Division (SPD) Chief Lee Graf and Clark County Sheriff Deb Burchett.

“We don’t want a racial crisis to unfold if ever there was an issue between police and a member of our community,” Ruby says. “So, the goal is to have a team in place that can prevent that from happening. The second goal is, in order for that to happen, we want respected members in the minority community to have a voice in the policing standards within Springfield and Clark County.”

Through the past month, the team sought the guidance of a consultant who recommended the group split into separate branches, one focused on the city and the other focused on the county. For now, they’re being called The Clark County Law Enforcement Advisory Team and the City of Springfield Law Enforcement Advisory Team, though Ruby says its possible the names could change as the teams become more involved.

Though the teams are still in early planning phases, Ruby – one of the original organizers – says he’s hopeful by how interested and invested both local law enforcement and local citizens have been so far.

“We’re trying to be really proactive and not have a situation where it’s the advisory team against the police,” he says. “We’re hoping if we build good relationships ahead of a crisis, we could work with one another through a crisis if something like that should ever happen.”

Graf echoed the sentiments about building relationships and says he’s open to working with the advisory team. He says one important thing that has already been helpful is the ability to directly answer questions and address concerns local minority leaders have had about police division practices, including use of force, tactics training, and how complaints are managed.

“I truly feel that this committee is truly invested in learning about the police agency and looking at improvements they would want to have, I think it will validate this division and where it’s been going,” Graf says. “I would hope that things stay as positive as they’ve already been. It’s fortunate in Clark County that we’ve always been able to talk about issues … It’s personal for me that it keeps pushing us forward and helps citizens be more engaged with law enforcement and the police division.”

Ruby says one way team members are already looking at learning about local policing practices will be registering for upcoming Citizens Police Academy classes offered twice a year through SPD.

But, before that can happen, the teams will need to outline their structure and add to their membership.

The teams will reconvene at the end of this month and discuss ideas adding to the diversity of the membership and intentionally including Black residents, Latino residents, minority faith-based groups, members of the LGBTQ community, a representative from the Springfield NAACP, liaisons from law enforcement agencies and leaders of city and county government, Ruby says.

“The city of Springfield is proud to support efforts to forma police advisory committee to build on the Springfield Police Division’s relationship with the community. Our role as public servants demands that we cultivate, establish and maintain trust with the people we serve, and the Springfield community has a robust history of doing just that,” Springfield City Manager Bryan Heck says by email. “We can never do too much work in this direction, and we’re committed to doing all we can to forge the partnerships needed to ensure that all those in our community are treated fairly and have equal opportunity and access to resources.

“The development of an advisory committee gives us another tool to openly and transparently serve the public.”

Ruby says that even though the teams are in early stages, they’ve already helped with some of that transparency. For example, he says one concern was that not all SPD officers wear body cameras. However, body cameras require funding that isn’t readily available to the department. Though there isn’t a solution yet, the teams can be a means to investigating these kinds of challenges and working together toward a common solution.

And, while the team will divide into separate groups for the city and county – with the City Commission leading the charge for one group and the County Commission leading the charge for the other one – Ruby hopes both teams will continue to meet to collaborate and share ideas to still achieve the common goals.

“Ultimately, if there is an incident that’s disputed – one, we want to make sure minorities are treated equally and have equal access to justice, but we also realize that police can be falsely accused,” Ruby says. “If there is an incident, and a policeman or policewoman has acted appropriately, it’s one thing for the city police chief to say everything is fine. But, it would be much better if a respected member of the minority community can say, ‘We’ve had a chance to evaluate this, and this police officer followed policy.’ So we’re trying to really set it up as a collaborative process, not an us versus them.”

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.

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