It’s unlikely that Ferguson, Mo., has a Shop With a Cop program. It’s not that this program alone would have prevented the violence that recently marred the community after the shooting of a black teen by a white police officer, but the absence of a program like this is revealing.
Fillmore County, which gave youth the chance to shop for school supplies and clothing with local police officers on Saturday, has had the program for three years. The Minnesota Shop With a Cop program started in St. Paul in 2000. Many other departments across the nation participate in the program.
“The program is designed to allow kids to develop good relationships with officers in a positive experience,” Ann Detlefson, one of the organizers of the Fillmore County event, told our reporter prior to the event.
It isn’t only through Shop With a Cop that local residents develop relationships with local law enforcement. Officers in local communities in southeastern Minnesota often are present at public functions locally not to enforce order, but as neighbors enjoying their private time or as public servants to explain their roles in the community.
Not only does the community get to know officers better, law enforcement gets to know the residents of the community better. Law enforcement and residents become integral components of a functioning community.
We still don’t know all the circumstances of the Ferguson incident, but it seems unlikely that any local officer would have the same reactions toward an unarmed suspect or that a local community would strike back in a violent outburst when a controversy arises.
Although race is at the heart of the division in Ferguson, the issue isn’t entirely black and white.
Prior to the shooting in Ferguson, a black man died from a chokehold by a white police officer in Staten Island, N.Y.
The incident sparked anger, but recent protests were peaceful there. For one thing, the police chief and mayor immediately responded to the controversy, explaining who was involved and their repercussions while also promising changes in the department to prevent future situations like this.
This wasn’t a one-time reaction. City officials have had good ongoing relations with leaders in the black community even though the establishment often comes under fire for perceived biases and flaws. Dialogue is transparent and respectful.
After the shooting in Ferguson, the community received no explanation of what happened or who was involved. The citizens’ attempt to force answers — or, for some, to make the people in power merely recognize their anger, or even existence — through protest, which escalated to violence, was received with a military-like force of police power to control the situation.
Likely that is not a one-time reaction, but rather part of a trend in a community where the residents and the police don’t mingle except when there is trouble. Shows of force are the only means of communications.
These reactions show the lack of a real community in Ferguson and that problem isn’t all about racial disparities in the department compared to the makeup of the community.
One family that was protesting in Ferguson last week was the Mattsons from Athens, a city of about 22,000 in Ohio. The parents are white and their son, Jay, is black, something that is seen more often in our rural communities in southeastern Minnesota these days.
“Just being African-American and seeing a kid only two years older than me get shot, it’s really just sad and makes me worried about how I am going to act when I leave the small town I live in now,” Jay Mattson told a National Public Radio reporter. “Because everybody grew up with me and they knew who I was, but when I move away I don’t know how other people are going to react to me.”
The young Mattson is a minority in his hometown of Athens, Ohio, which has a population that is 86.4 percent white. It is interesting to find in a quick search, though, that the police department in Athens participates in an active Shop With a Cop program as well as many other community initiatives that it has set up.
Mattson feels secure in his community of upbringing because it is a real community where those in power go out of their way to connect with its residents.
Youth in our communities also feel a sense that they matter, that what they have to offer is of value, because people such as police officers take time to, perhaps, help them shop for school, or explain how a police car is outfitted or even just to talk to them even where there is no investigation in progress.
It may seem hard for us to comprehend how things could go so wrong in Ferguson, but then we have been sheltered by a local system that fosters community connectedness. Although our youth will one day find out that not all places in the world work this way, sheltering them now in a connected community doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.