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#NoFergusonHere

 The story of two pastors working to heal
police-community divisions in Kansas.

 

After watching frustration and anger boil over following the use of force by police in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, two Wichita pastors sought to prevent a similar explosion in their own community. Eighteen months after it began, The Journal takes a look at the #NoFergusonHere effort they helped launch and the extent to which it’s been able to bridge police and community divisions.

When the friction between the Ferguson law enforcement community and African-Americans exploded into a national storm in the summer of 2014, the Rev. Kevass Harding of Wichita had a special vantage point from which he could set out to try to bridge the divide back home.

Before being called into the ministry, Harding had served as a Wichita police officer for nearly four years in the early 1990s. He’d lived the challenges that officers face. He is also an African-American and the pastor of a predominantly African-American church in northeast Wichita, a historic population center for some of the community’s 40,000 blacks. “There’s great cops, and I felt like I was one of them,” Harding says. “But there’s instances where police brutality really exists.”

Harding was on an annual guys golfing trip in August 2014 when Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, captured the nation’s attention. Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American accused of theft from a convenience store, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the middle of a street on a Saturday afternoon.

The shooting ignited chaos in Ferguson, a city of 20,000 with a majority of black residents but an almost entirely white police force. In the months to come, Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting and would be cleared of civil rights violations. However, the U.S. Department of Justice also issued a scathing report, calling on the city to overhaul its criminal justice system.

In the immediate aftermath of the killing, though, the nation witnessed a vivid dichotomy relative to the efficacy of violence and nonviolence. At times, the city reverberated with peaceful protesters chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” And there was looting and other violence, prompting the Missouri governor to establish a curfew and turn over power to the Highway Patrol, which showed up with military-style vehicles. “You saw the frustration and anger, and I said, ‘Man, that can happen in any city,’” Harding said. Including Wichita.

Ferguson became a launching pad for a heated national conversation over racial justice and the use of force by police. Some saw Brown as the victim of a racially biased criminal justice system. Others lionized Wilson, convinced he was unfairly accused. Many blacks and whites saw the situation very differently.

Some 400 miles away, key figures in Wichita’s African-American community started mobilizing. They didn’t want what had happened in Ferguson to happen in their community. There were signs of tension in Wichita, too. Just weeks earlier, 26-year-old Icarus Randolph, a Marine veteran, had been shot and killed by a Wichita police officer outside his family’s home. Police officials said the shots were fired after the man had charged officers with a knife. But his family said the man suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and accused the officers of allowing the situation to escalate.

It was just the latest in a series of incidents in the city in which family members of those killed had been speaking out about officer-involved shootings. In 2012, the families of three people shot and killed by Wichita police approached the City Council, criticizing the department’s use of force and wanting more information about the shootings.

 

“I’ll be an agitator if I have to be, but I’d rather be a collaborator,” Harding said.

 

Although a handful of lawsuits were filed accusing officers of excessive use of force in recent years, over the previous three decades no Wichita officer had been charged with wrongdoing in a police shooting, according to The Wichita Eagle. To the law enforcement community, the existing system of oversight – involving the Police Department, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Sedgwick County district attorney – to ensure the reasonable use of force by police was fair. But critics, including some of the families of those killed, expressed suspicion about whether it truly held police accountable for their actions.

As he followed the events in Ferguson, Harding didn’t want to wait to see whether tensions between police and the community in Wichita would worsen. He resolved to do something pre-emptive – to help turn down the heat between police and minority groups in Wichita to get it to a productive level, instead of cranking it up. “I’ll be an agitator if I have to be, but I’d rather be a collaborator,” Harding said.

One of Harding’s first calls was to another African-American church official in Wichita, the Rev. Junius Dotson, senior pastor at St. Mark United Methodist Church, which is just over a mile west of Harding’s Dellrose United Methodist Church. Framed on Dotson’s desk are the results of a personality test. “Thinker” gets the largest bar – but the results also describe him as an imaginer, a promoter and a rebel.

Dotson was in. He and Harding began planning a community forum, but they wanted results, not just another town hall filled with people venting. “The goal was not just to have a meeting where nothing would happen,” Dotson said. “We felt that this issue belonged to the whole city.”

At the outset, Dotson and Harding, both of whom are alumni of Kansas Leadership Center programs, moved quickly, bringing together the mayor, city manager, a City Council member, the interim police chief, the sheriff, community organizers and several others. Dotson wanted viable action items. “How do we bring together people?” he asked. “It’s not just a black issue.”

 

SEIZING A MOMENT

The racial tensions across the nation added urgency. The ministers decided on a forum, drew from their constituencies, created fliers and took to social media. “We don’t want what happened in Ferguson to happen here,” was repeated again and again, Harding recalled.

To rally residents to that goal, a Twitter hashtag was born to promote the gathering: #NoFergusonHere. Twitter hashtags, most famously #BlackLivesMatter, had emerged as a way to raise public awareness of a campaign to reduce the use of force against African-Americans. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag evolved to become a movement, and the #NoFergusonHere organizers sought a local movement of their own toward reconciliation.

On Aug. 28, 2014 – a scant two and a half weeks after Michael Brown’s death – more than 600 people showed up for a community forum on police relations in the auditorium of Wichita East High School. The event brought in an extremely diverse crowd. “It was one of the most beautiful meetings culturally,” Harding said. The turnout surprised Dotson. People were fired up, which was great, but the atmosphere was tense. “The heat was already sky high,” Dotson said. “We seized a moment.”

Harding and Dotson served as moderators for the event, which included a panel discussion featuring then-Mayor Carl Brewer, City Manager Robert Layton, Wichita interim Police Chief Nelson Mosley, Kenya Cox of the Wichita branch of the NAACP, Carlos Contreras of Kansas People’s Action and the Rev. Reuben Eckels of Sunflower Community Action.

As people began discussing concerns about their relationships with police officers, the organizers were careful to record responses. Harding afterward had this message for the people in attendance: “We’ve heard you. We’ve taken notes. We’re going to compile that data, sit down and find a common theme – a pearl – that the community is saying to the city about police reform.”

 

The turnout surprised Dotson. People were fired up, which was great, but the atmosphere was tense. “The heat was already sky high,” Dotson said. “We seized a moment.”

 

One of Randolph’s family members spoke at the meeting, questioning why every police shooting in Wichita had been ruled justified. She, her family and friends of the dead veteran demonstrated outside the school before the meeting. Despite the emotions in the room, the atmosphere remained productive. A Wichita Eagle reporter summarized the meeting by writing that “concerns and questions about relations between police and the community received a thorough and peaceful airing.”

“Participants questioned police procedures on officer-involved shootings, urged the education and mentoring of young black men about how to respond to officers, questioned hiring practices within the department and called for the community to be as accountable as the police for improving relations,” wrote reporter Fred Mann.

Some participants talked about the need for Wichita police officers to wear cameras, with some in the audience holding up signs saying, “No camera, no gun.” Brewer drew applause when he declared that he would return to the City Council and work with the city manager to outfit every officer with a camera.

When the meeting concluded, Harding, Dotson and other organizers were pleased. They had expected some anger, but they were optimistic about the ideas that emerged. “Wichita is going to be one of those cities that’s going to be an example,” Dotson said of his thoughts that evening.

 

BECOMING A LIGHTNING ROD

When the organizers met again, they categorized the responses from the #NoFergusonHere forum and came up with four priorities: 1. Acquire body cameras for the police force and require all officers to wear them. 2. Implement crisis intervention training for all officers. 3. Create an independent review board for officer-involved shootings and allegations of misconduct. 4. Increase the culture of community policing, which promotes trusting partnerships with residents to be proactive when it comes to public safety and reducing crime.

As organizers widely promoted their action plan, they buckled down to make progress on all those points and announced a follow-up meeting. This was not going to be another one-day-and-done event. They were checking all the boxes, they thought, for achieving civic progress.

And that progress was happening at lightning speed: The city of Wichita committed to equipping every patrol officer with a body camera, locating funding for the purchase and developing policies to regulate the cameras’ use. When that happened – with the goal of full implementation by Dec. 31, 2015 – Wichita was in line to be one of the first cities of its size to require all its officers to wear body cameras.

Harding, Dotson and the other organizers wanted to report back to the community on the progress they had made. So the follow-up #NoFergusonHere meeting was scheduled for Dec. 10, 2014, at Wichita’s Century II Convention Hall.

Harding and Dotson had expected anger at the first meeting, where people aired their grievances. But as they prepared for the follow-up meeting, there was a sense of satisfaction that not only were they actually reconvening the group but they also had some accomplishments to report. However, in areas outside Kansas, the national storm was far from dissipating. In November, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson in the shooting death of Brown, sparking another round of protests – both peaceful and riotous.

Protests also followed the decision of a grand jury in New York to not indict a police officer in the case of Eric Garner, an African-American who died in police custody after being placed in a chokehold during his arrest. About 200 people showed up for Wichita’s second #NoFergusonHere meeting. The agenda consisted of a progress report and then small-group discussions. But participants didn’t want to talk in small groups. They wanted to vent to the whole group. Dotson and Harding were caught off guard by the level of anger. From the moderators’ perspective, several months had passed since Brown’s death, and they were there to talk about all their progress.

 

“It was hard to shut it down,” Dotson said. “You’re up there, and you’re kind of the lightning rod.”

 

Harding put it bluntly: “I felt attacked – we’d done all this work. We’re very transparent.” But many in the audience just weren’t ready to move on. Djuan Wash, communications director at Sunflower Community Action, a grassroots social justice organization, understood some of the anger in the room. Some longtime activists wanted to know where the pastors had been before Ferguson, he said.

“I consider both of them (Dotson and Harding) to be allies,” Wash said. “However, the ministers in this town have not been consistent in their support.”

Wash said one point of contention was that Brewer, then the mayor, had once promised body cameras by the end of 2014 before realizing it would take more time to get funding and policies in place. “People were angry because they hadn’t seen anything happen,” Wash said.

EPILOGUE:
‘THIS IS ALL OF OUR PROBLEM’

Harding and Dotson managed their own emotions as best they could and carried on with the second #NoFergusonHere meeting, even though things weren’t going as planned. “Even in progress, the reality is there is still a fester of anger,” Harding said, reflecting on the meeting.

Harding used the analogy of Moses and the Red Sea from the Bible. The Israelites managed to get released from Egypt, but they were still wandering in the desert and still complaining. “It was a reminder that with progress, you’re going to continue to have agitators’ complaints and frustration,” he said. “Working with the city, you’re getting things done. … You have these folks angry because you’re collaborating. They want you to riot.”

Harding was able to take a breath and ignore the feeling of being attacked. “Police work helped me understand – don’t take stuff personal,” he said. “You’re not going to please everybody. You need to be able to understand that internally or it can really mess you up, because most people want to be liked.”

It turned out to be a matter of managing expectations for the second meeting. Dotson and Harding had not anticipated that emotions would still be as high. They had used the comments and discussion from the first meeting as marching orders and had gone out and done the work. They were unprepared for an audience that still wanted to express frustrations instead of focusing on solutions.

The pastors did their best to handle the comments deftly and steer the group back to the agenda and the small-group discussions. And at the end of the evening, they felt good about their progress – they thought the open dialogue and the concrete action items would help Wichita avoid what had erupted in Ferguson.

But there was still anger in the room because none of the officer-involved shootings in Wichita had come before a grand jury. And concerns lingered about how quickly police were learning to respond to calls involving people with mental illness. A legislator and others called for more diversity on the police force.

A year and a half after the first meeting, Harding and Dotson view the #NoFergusonHere efforts as a success. They and fellow organizers have taken each of the four priorities identified in the initial meeting and have gone to work on them, in some cases making significant progress. Harding and Dotson were pleased with the involvement of community representatives in the process of hiring a new police chief in Wichita, which took place over the fall and winter of 2015.

Because of a delay in receiving federal funding, only about half of the department’s 400 officers were fully outfitted with body cameras by the end of 2015. But the money for the remainder of the cameras was expected to arrive as early as January. However, the first test of the cameras came well before full implementation.

 

“None of these national incidents happened in a vacuum,” Dotson said. “Those relationships were not tended to.”

 

In December 2015, recordings from the cameras came into play when a police officer shot a teen after a traffic stop outside a Wichita high school. Police said the teen ran toward the school with a gun and released a still photo from an officer’s body camera of the suspect apparently holding a weapon. Authorities, however, declined to release the full video that month because it was part of an ongoing investigation.

Wash is among those who disagree with the decision, saying that releasing the footage would reassure community members that police are giving an accurate account of that night’s events. “The body cameras are meant to be a check on police brutality,” he said. The two pastors believe that there’s no way the body cameras would have been implemented so quickly were it not for the catalyzing events of Ferguson and the momentum created by the #NoFergusonHere movement. Sunflower Community Action’s Wash agreed, noting that his organization had been advocating for the issue for years.

As for the other items on the list – crisis intervention training, independent review of officer-involved shootings and an increased culture of community policing – activists say progress is steady. What’s less clear is how much the relationship between police and members of Wichita’s communities of color has improved.

Local concerns about policing surfaced again during public interviews with Wichita police chief candidates in 2015. Meanwhile, racially charged events continued to capture the nation’s attention, fanning heated rhetoric as the year progressed.

In April, the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American who was in police custody, spurred violent protests in Baltimore. As the year ended, a jury was unable to reach a verdict in the case of the first officer to go to trial in Gray’s death.

In July, South Carolina removed the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia. The move had been fueled by outrage over the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans attending Bible study at a Charleston church. After the killings, it emerged that the white man arrested for the shooting had proudly posed with the flag in a photo posted on the web.

In December, a white Chicago police officer was charged with murder in the 2014 death of Laquan McDonald, after a dash cam video of the black teenager being shot 16 times was released to the public.

The ongoing strife that surrounds race and justice in the country is a sobering dynamic to contemplate. “None of these national incidents happened in a vacuum,” Dotson said. “Those relationships were not tended to.”

That’s why Dotson and Harding are determined to keep plugging away at improving relationships with Wichita’s law enforcement officers while renewing the focus on community policing, which promotes routine interaction between police and residents, not just when there’s an incident.

The racially charged incidents of the past 18 months brought into sharp relief divisions in society around justice and trust in law enforcement. It’s not a black-and-white issue, but it’s certainly not uncommon for perceptions to diverge along racial lines. With each passing month, it seems as if a new flashpoint emerges somewhere in our nation.

Harding and Dotson sought to do something to keep Wichita from being the next Ferguson. But even their efforts couldn’t cover the breadth of the factors that might be at play. In Ferguson, for instance, rising unemployment and poverty, a lack of black representation in police and government, and the disproportionate number of times African-Americans were stopped or arrested there helped provide fuel for the unrest.

True progress, Harding says, will only come when more people look at the deeper roots of the problem and understand how they might be contributing to a less-than-ideal reality. “We still have a lot of ‘that’s not my problem’ when it should be ‘this is all of our problem,’” Harding said. “Where there is justice and equality, there is no poverty, period. We wouldn’t have police brutality if everybody had a job.”

Journal managing editor Chris Green contributed to this story.

 

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This article was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe

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