Police-community dialogue a crucial starting point for change

Steven Puro is president of Midwest Jewish Congress and a professor emeritus of political science at St. Louis University.

BY STEVEN PURO

Can we grow as a St. Louis area community? What new elements can be introduced to allow people of different views to listen to outcry on both sides?

The acquittal of former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley, who had been charged with first-degree murder and aremed criminal action in the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, has led to different narratives, mainly from protesters and law enforcement officials. There is substantial variation in interpretation of the facts. 

The protesters have been a mixture of all ages and races. Some their signs indicate “Black Lives Matter,” “No Justice, No Peace” and “Stop Killing Us.” They call for justice and accountability for the police. 

The law enforcement narrative in this and other cases often is that the officer feared for his or her life and that the criminal justice system rendered a decision.

Posts on social media intensify each of the narratives. In the Stockley verdict aftermath, protesters sought safety at Central Reform Congregation on Waterman Boulevard in St. Louis while a social media hashtag urged police to #GasTheSynagogue. News reports indicated that police never threatened to use tear gas and that they promised safety for all in the synagogue. 

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It has become apparent that each side was focused not on what it might do but what it wanted the other side to do. Trust between the various groups started at a low ebb and was further diminished through police-protester interactions. I wonder: After the verdict, did each side lose the moment and the momentum to get anything done? 

It seems clear that nothing will happensoon. What steps could lead to direct talks among police, political leaders and protest groups? How can raw feelings and elements of mistrust be lessened? 

The Midwest Jewish Congress, along with other community groups that wish to participate, proposes a two-stage conference to substantively discuss new possibilities for police-community relations in the St. Louis region. In this conference, serious consideration will be given to losses the region faces if new approaches to cooperation are not considered. Also to be considered is why previous attempts to improve police-community relations were not successful. 

The nonpartisan St. Louis County Human Relations Commission and a similar organization in St. Louis City could be avenues for these discussions.

Civil discourse and public negotiations to formulate the basis of this conference would be an important first step. Negotiations may uncover underlying problems of these police-community relations.