Citizens group building trust between police, minorities in DuPage

  • Regina Brent of Aurora is president of Unity Partnership, which has been working for the past year to "bridge that gap between the police and the community" in DuPage County, especially among minority groups and at-risk youths.

    Regina Brent of Aurora is president of Unity Partnership, which has been working for the past year to "bridge that gap between the police and the community" in DuPage County, especially among minority groups and at-risk youths.

  • Woodridge police Chief Brian Cunningham, who recently left the Naperville department after 30 years, is among DuPage County police chiefs involved in Unity Partnership and the citizen group's efforts to connect minorities with law enforcement to grow trust and understanding.

    Woodridge police Chief Brian Cunningham, who recently left the Naperville department after 30 years, is among DuPage County police chiefs involved in Unity Partnership and the citizen group's efforts to connect minorities with law enforcement to grow trust and understanding.

 
 
Updated 1/4/2017 6:39 PM

After officer-involved shootings like the one that killed 17-year-old Trevon Johnson late Sunday near Villa Park, there is often a call to improve relations between police and the communities they serve.

In this case, that effort already has begun.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Leaders of a citizens group called Unity Partnership have been meeting with police chiefs across DuPage County for the past year to work on building trust and understanding.

"One of the reasons why we created Unity Partnership is so we could bridge that gap between the police and the community," said the organization's president, Regina Brent of Aurora. "We created Unity Partnership in order to build a relationship between the police and the youth so that familiarity would grow and people won't rush to judgment on either side."

Lisle police Chief Dave Anderson says he first connected with Unity Partnership when his department was protecting DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church during the funeral service for Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail cell in July 2015. The organization already has helped give leaders in the black, Hispanic, Muslim and Sikh communities the comfort to call their police chiefs when something troubling happens in the national news and they need to hear "whatever is going on on a national scale will not affect the way we police our communities and the relationships we have," Anderson said.

Yet Unity Partnership's work is far from finished, area police chiefs say.

"It's something we have to work on every day, obviously, but we're not starting that conversation after the fact," said Brian Cunningham, who recently became police chief in Woodridge after 30 years on the force in Naperville. "I'm glad we had a foundation going forward."

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That foundation has led to recognition of black people's contributions to DuPage County, efforts with school resource officers to show kids the positive side of police work, and messages from activists such as Brent reminding people not to judge all officers by the actions of a few.

Still, Unity Partnership's law enforcement liaison, Bloomingdale resident Paul Scott, remains focused on the work ahead: collaborating with police to produce tangible results he can use to calm his friends and neighbors.

Scott said many "reasonable, thoughtful people" distrust police because of past experiences, concern for their families and accounts of mistreatment of minorities they've seen on the news.

"I talk to professional people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, who happen to be African-American, and they confide in me that they really are afraid of the police," Scott said. "They're like, 'Hey, man, I don't know about the police.' I say, based on what I've been learning about the police out here in our area, they're very well-trained, they seem to be committed to trying to work with the various communities."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But Unity Partnership wants more.

A template of best practices for town-hall meetings between police and minority communities could be a start, Dave Anderson said. The partnership is using the expertise of Darien police Chief Greg Thomas, who formerly was chief in Illinois' second-largest -- and very diverse -- city of Aurora, to develop best practices to ensure residents' voices truly are heard.

"It's a chance for people to sit down in an environment that's not a conflict and really get to know one another," Scott said.

He's gotten to know officers while taking citizen police academy courses in Bloomingdale and Roselle and said that's another thing he'd like to see expanded -- one-day citizen police academy introductions for people who can't commit to weekly meetings for several months.

The sessions could teach what it's like to be a police officer, legal rights for people stopped by police, and nuances of how the law enforcement system works, like the fact 911 calls often go to a dispatch center, not directly to an individual police department.

"When people take this course, they're going to ... get to talk to police officers personally and find out they have the same kinds of issues," he said.

Beyond forging personal relationships, Unity Partnership leaders want to create structural change.

Scott, who recently has met with chiefs in Bloomingdale, Carol Stream, Glendale Heights, Glen Ellyn, Roselle and Villa Park, said he's working with Oak Brook Chief James Kruger to push for new state legislation about ongoing training requirements for police. On the suggestion of Naperville Chief Robert Marshall, he might pursue creation of a regional or statewide standard policy for police use of force.

"There are different guidelines in each town," he said. "We think there ought to be a standard."

Days after Johnson's shooting death at the hands of a DuPage County sheriff's deputy who has not been publicly named, Unity Partnership leaders say it's important to wait for the facts to become clear. But they also say this could be an opportunity to work more closely with Sheriff John Zaruba.

"In light of this incident, I said it's time to reach out to the sheriff's office again," Scott said, "and I intend to do that."

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