How Gary, Indiana, is improving community-police relations

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Tonight, police officers across the country are heading out in their neighborhoods to talk to citizens, part of an effort called National Night Out.

This summer has been marked in places by shootings and heated tensions between law enforcement and those they serve. But there are cities leading the way to improve things.

As part of our Race Matters conversations focusing on solutions, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports from Gary, Indiana.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Karen Marie Freeman-Wilson became mayor of her native Gary, Indiana, after three attempts.

High on her list of priorities was improving relations between the police and the predominantly black community, not great in a town with high unemployment dating back to the steel mill closures in the '70s, in addition to a history of police brutality and crime.

But Mayor Freeman-Wilson is starting to change Gary, and we sat down with the mayor to discuss her solutions.

Mayor Freeman-Wilson, thank you for joining us.

How high on your list of priorities was police-community relations?

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON, Gary, Indiana: Well police-community relations was very high on my list, because public safety was one of the greatest concerns in our community.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why?

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: We had a very high and still have a high murder rate. We had and have a high rate of crime, even though it's gone down.

A lot has to do with the fact that there's frustration associated with not having employment, with not having adequate income, with poverty. And as a result of that, people tend to be angry or angrier. And as a result of that anger, you will find that people resort to violence sometimes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But at the time that you took office, there was real conflict between the community and the police. What was the biggest problem that you had to deal with there?

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: Well, there was distrust of the police.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why?

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: Residents often thought that perhaps the police were involved in illegal activity, or, more often, didn't care about what happened in neighborhoods.

There's a big gulf in between the fact that some of our police officers do not live in the city, and, as a result of them not living, that they didn't understand what was happening in the neighborhoods.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, what did you do?

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: Well, we became involved in the national initiative on building police and community trust, an initiative out of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as well as other organizations, Yale University, the National Institute of Justice, and other research organizations, that really look at ways to build police and community trust.

And so they come in, they talk to members of the community. They provide training for the police department. Our police officers have all gone through implicit bias training.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What's that?

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: That's training to really check your biases, to ask you to look at the way that you look at other people.

So, do I look at you and think a certain thing? And how does that impact the way that I interact with you? So, as a police officer, do I look at an African-American male, whether I am an African-American male or not, and think a certain thing, and as a result act a certain way towards that person?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, what would you say is the result of that?

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: What we have found is that police listen to the community more, the community listens to our police officers more. There's more positive interaction.

We have also found that there's more of an effort to interact when it's not — when a crisis is not occurring. And so, in August, we will have our National Night Out, when the community comes out on an evening. And the police, fire, and other departments of the city get together.

But it's really focused on public safety and the fact that you can go out after dark, you can interact after dark in a positive way. The police bring their canine units out. And young people will get a chance to interact with the canine.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And not be bitten by them.

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: And not be bitten by them. It's a positive thing.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What's the complexion of your police department? And does that matter?

KAREN MARIE FREEMAN-WILSON: About 55 percent of our police department is African-American. Another 35 to 40 percent is Caucasian. And the remaining officers are Latino.

And that absolutely does matter. I think it's important that young African-American children see police officers, see people in authority that look like them.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What you have achieved here sounds pretty good. It actually sounds very good. Is it applicable in other circumstances in other cities?

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: I believe that the solution is really for the police to establish a rapport with the community that doesn't necessarily involve an official interaction.

Sometimes, it's midnight basketball. Other, times it's some type of youth league. Sometimes, it's an explorers program, where you are recruiting young people to be involved with the police. Other times, it's just neighborhood forums or neighborhood meetings where you help people to keep their community safe.

When you know the officers, then you're less inclined to think that they are there to harass you. And when you know the community, you will understand that the overwhelming — overwhelming number of citizens are really law-abiding people.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you mentioned earlier the fact that your murder rate is going down. What do you attribute that to?

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: We attribute the reduction in the murder rate to the fact that we have now focused on those most likely to be involved in criminal activity.

And so there was a time when we were just doing sweeps. I think a lot of people call it broken window policing.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Yes, city of Gary.

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: And so everybody would get stopped. You might get stopped. I might get stopped. And there might be positive results in terms of being able to detect a crime, or there might not.

Now we focus on those who are most likely to be involved in criminal behavior. And we send them not just a punitive message, but we send them a message that we would like to see you become productive, law-abiding citizens. We want to support you in that effort, but if you choose to continue in the road of crime, if you continue to be involved in non-productive behavior, we will hold you accountable for that.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And when do you tell them that?

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: Well, we focus on those individuals who are on probation and parole.

And we conduct what they refer to as call-ins. And so these call-ins are meetings. They're meetings that involve the community, meetings that involve individuals on probation and parole. And essentially what we tell them is, we want to help you, we want to support you, but we also want peace and safety in this community, and that the killing has to stop.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Mayor Freeman-Wilson, thank you for joining us.

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON: Thank you.

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