Form a police oversight board, integrate Black history in schools and partner with churches to celebrate diversity were among the suggestions that residents brought to town leaders recently.
The three “Listening Space” sessions in June brought residents face-to-face or online with Gilbert Police, town officials and representatives from Gilbert Public Schools, Higley and Chandler Unified school districts to talk about racism and police reform.
“There were two thoughts I heard repeated several times,” said Vice Mayor Scott Peterson, who attended the first session and received feedback from the others.
“There was no discussion about defunding our police department here, but there was discussion about looking at current policies and procedures and doing reform where appropriate,” he said, adding:
“Second, there was discussion about oversight and the police department is reviewing current practice and will likely discuss future actions with the Council.”
The deaths of unarmed black Americans involving police – most recently George Floyd – prompted the town to open a dialogue that is long overdue in this country and within this community, said mayor aide Valerie Shaffer.
Floyd’s death ignited protests sometime violent that swept across the nation.
Shaffer said Mayor Jenn Daniels responded to the social unrest by launching the Listen. Learn. Act. Amplify Initiative.
Holding the listening events was the first step of the initiative, Shaffer said.
Over three separate nights, 34 people attended in person at the Gilbert Community Center and 12 participated in a virtual meeting, according to Shaffer.
“The goal was to listen, learn and create actionable change in our community,” she said.
Shaffer said the community’s feedback is being forwarded to Council and the town’s leadership team.
“The Town of Gilbert will review the collected feedback, comments and suggestions along with the Gilbert Police Department and the school districts to learn how best to make actionable change,” Shaffer said, explaining:
“From the suggestions and comments, we will work towards continuous improvements, not only within the Gilbert Police Department but throughout our community and schools.”
The next phase includes implementing any changes, programs or resources identified as needed, Shaffer said.
“As a community, we will continue to amplify those voices around us that need to be heard,” she added.
When it comes to policing, residents’ suggestions included more and ongoing training for cops, including wellness and mental health; more diversity on the police force; and more officers with associate or bachelor’s degrees.
According to Gilbert Police, 42 percent of its force has a high school degree while 28.2 percent has a bachelor’s and 12.4 percent has an associate degree. The ethnic makeup is 76.4 percent white, 16.2 percent Hispanic, 3.3 percent Asian and .5 percent black.
Residents also wanted programs that foster positive relationships between police and children at a younger age to reduce fear and distrust.
“Having our own public safety training facility open early next year provides the ability for Gilbert to shape future training programs,” said Councilwoman Yung Koprowski, who attended the sessions.
“I believe it is viable to explore additional programs and funding for social services and mental health as well as re-instating Gilbert’s Human Relations Committee,” she said.
Koprowski said people of diverse ethnicities and ages shared stories of both negative and positive interactions with police from various jurisdictions – most centered around traffic stops.
She said participants asked Gilbert Police about current policies against excessive use of force, how complaints against police are investigated and employee demographics.
“Improving the employee demographic diversity for both police and the Town was also suggested,” Koprowski said.
“New strategies are already being identified for recruiting. Gilbert Police Department cannot do it through traditional methods alone and is asking for word-of-mouth referrals from the community to help them recruit a more ethnically diverse workforce.”
Koprowski added that “other suggestions came from the 8 Can’t Wait campaign, which the town’s policies align with to the extent described.”
Campaign Zero launched 8 Can’t Wait campaign in response to Floyd’s death in an effort to bring immediate change to police departments.
A group of activists, protesters and researchers across the country in 2015 formed Campaign Zero to end police brutality, following riots in Ferguson, Missouri, after an unarmed black teenager was fatally shot by a cop.
With the rallying cry to defund the police sweeping across the country, several cities, including Baltimore, Portland and Salt Lake City have done just that and reduced their police departments’ budgets. Minneapolis City Council went as far as to disband its police department.
That’s not the case in Gilbert, Koprowski said.
“This wasn’t a surprise to me, but the resounding message I heard was that residents were extremely supportive of Gilbert’s Police and Fire departments,” Koprowski said. “They simply wanted to check-in, ensure local policies were in place to discourage and reduce police violence and offer constructive criticism and solutions.”
Residents also wanted to see more diversity in the schools, have anti-bias training take place at all the campuses and classrooms needed to emphasize how to talk about race.
For the town, they suggested promotion of black-owned businesses and organizations, more social inclusion and cultural events to represent the community and celebrate different cultures.
“I was impressed by the recognition of the need for communication and the willingness of everyone to continue the dialog,” said Councilman Bill Spence, who participated in two of the sessions.
“I heard several ideas for change and listened to the experiences of our residents,” Spence said. “Some stories were very concerning. The best part was that I exchanged numbers with several people and continue to talk to them even as recently as this week.”
Shaffer said the town has a growing list of over 100 residents who have engaged with officials about racism and police reform.
She said Daniels intends to hold an event in August to update the community on the town’s effort and address recommendations brought forward.
“Mayor Daniels hopes to break into smaller working groups or subcommittees that will be focused on continued recommendations and feedback from the community,” Shaffer said, adding:
“Our goal is to have long lasting positive effects within our community. The information provided from Gilbert’s Listening Space will provide a foundation for additional dialogue and plans for action to ensure Gilbert is a community in which everyone feels welcome and has an opportunity to be heard, valued, and respected.”