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Experts discuss changing police perceptions during Naperville forum

Community trust in local police is a valuable commodity that can easily be eroded by police shootings of African-Americans and abuses elsewhere but also can be strengthened by re-examining procedures and forming connections with residents, experts said Wednesday.

A panel discussion held by the League of Women Voters Naperville on the subject of "Policing in Naperville" brought together Naperville police Chief Robert Marshall; Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois; Michael Childress, president of the DuPage County NAACP; and Holly Schroetlin, volunteer legislative lead for Moms Demand Action.

Among the topics discussed were gun control, when to use force and law enforcement training.

"If the past is any indication, we can have an honest dialogue about issues involving policing while at the same time recognizing, as I think we have to from the beginning, that we ask police to do an incredibly difficult job in this society," Yohnka said.

"We ask them to go out on the streets each and every day and enforce a myriad of laws that are constantly changing. We often ask them to do that in a way that puts their lives at risk. That's something we should recognize and make clear that all of us support."

But police are also afforded incredible power — the ability to take away a person's freedom and, in some cases, their life — Yohnka said. It's a delicate balance, he said.

Childress agreed. "I hear a lot of times we say, 'Well, 99.99 percent of the police officers are all good people,' and they are," he said. "On the other hand, there's a few bad ones that give the police a bad reputation."

That's the equivalent of saying someone has cancer but 99.99 percent of his body is healthy, Childress said. That doesn't mean the disease doesn't have to be treated.

"One of the things we have to do to get those things fixed is to work together with police (to) understand what community policing actually is," he said. "We need to be involved as citizens, as concerned citizens, because we have to live in the community together, and also be involved with the city councils, the library boards, park districts. All of these things are local institutions that we take for granted."

Police shootings in such places as Ferguson, Mo.; Dallas; Baltimore; Baton Rouge, La.; and Chicago have exacerbated negative feelings between communities and local police departments, something Naperville police are wary of, Marshall said.

"These incidents have provided all of us in law enforcement the opportunity to examine our practices, our procedures, and how police services are delivered and those relationships with the community that they serve," he said. "This is an opportunity for us to look at how things are going in law enforcement and the opportunity to make changes."

The Naperville Police Department recently adopted "six pillars" as part of the recommendations made by former President Barack Obama's task force to help gauge the effectiveness of policing in the nation, Marshall said. They include building trust and legitimacy; policy and oversight; technology and social media; community policing and crime reduction; training and education; and officer wellness and safety.

While the department agreed with most of the recommendations in the report, there were areas for improvement in departmental training and the city's Response to Resistance policy, formerly known as the Use of Force policy.

"I think anybody who lives in Naperville has seen that we have received top ratings for one of the safest cities in America when you look at cities with a population of 150,000 to 300,000," Marshall said. "Naperville has rated as the safest city in America for this population, and that is specifically in the area of violent crime."

But Naperville has not been immune when it comes to gun violence. A man was shot outside an apartment complex last year, and another man was killed just a few weeks ago when he was shot in his car outside Scullen Middle School.

The panel agreed the issue of gun control presents a challenge in this country.

"There's been this kind of gap in many ways, and I think it too often happens these positions we stake out where it's absolutist, maybe on both sides sometimes," Yohnka said. "We don't ever really get to a common ground because we can't even agree upon a common history of where we are.

"If we can't agree on what that is, I don't know how we ever really get to the question of how we actually approach the fundamental idea of controlling this."

Audience member Kathy Gibson, of Naperville, said the discussion was informative but also left many questions unanswered.

"There were a number of questions about race and how it relates to policing, but I didn't hear as many answers, specifically about how the Naperville Police Department addresses it," she said. "There's a perception that the Naperville Police Department is more aggressive in perhaps stopping black motorists for potential infractions, and I didn't hear that addressed as to whether or not there's truth behind it or if the Naperville Police Department feels that's an important perception to address."

And it's not just the Police Department's perceptions that matter, Gibson said — the community's perceptions do as well.

"The Naperville Police Department has some pretty heavy-duty equipment, and you see it at events like the Naperville Marathon as (if) they're preparing for some kind of bombing," she said. "There's some protective factor in Naperville's identity as a very safe city that makes some of the militarization of the police force seem really excessive."

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