‘It shouldn’t be us vs. them’: Lehigh County police, communities of color both feel pain, have to work together for same goal, panel says
‘It shouldn’t be us vs. them’: Lehigh County police, communities of color both feel pain, have to work together for same goal, panel says
Four Lehigh County police chiefs and four community leaders of color discuss the future of policing and race relations in a livestreamed town hall Tuesday night at Transformation Church in Allentown. The eight are part of a working group that formed in the wake of the national reckoning after the death of George Floyd.

Kayla Dwyer
The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

The colors black and blue have come to represent division in the national conversation around race and police brutality. In a Lehigh County town hall Tuesday night, panelists considered the colors in a different way: bruising.

As four local police chiefs and four community leaders of color put it during the livestreamed panel Black and Blue: Race, Relations, and Rhetoric, the bruising is felt by both law enforcement and the communities they serve, and improving relations between the two are an essential step to healing.

“It shouldn’t be us versus them,” South Whitehall Township police Chief Glen Dorney said. “We all have the same goal.”

But trust has been broken, not just with recent events but through hundreds of years of systemic problems, said Michael Comick, a prison chaplain and a mentor with the Allentown youth program Midnight Basketball. “And it needs to be rebuilt one life at a time.”

The town hall, hosted by Transformation Church in Allentown, was developed by a working group of police chiefs and community leaders of color in the county, whose work is ongoing. Transformation Church pastor Charles Olmeda said this would likely be one of two town halls.

Panelists included Dorney and Comick, Allentown police Chief Glenn Granitz Jr., Emmaus police Chief Chuck Palmer, Whitehall Township Chief Michael Marks, Union Baptist Church pastor Knoxley Samms, Allen High School principal Shannon Mayfield and Jim Rivera, pastor at City Limits Assembly of God.

The eight panelists are part of a larger working group that came together on the heels of the unrest following the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of police, which prompted a national racial reckoning. Local police chiefs reached out to community stakeholders to have conversations about policing in the county, and the group has met once a month for the last four months, Dorney said.

Its approximately 30 members represent a diverse cohort, including Black, Hispanic and religious communities, students and law enforcement, Olmeda said.

Similar efforts are underway in Northampton County, where leaders in law enforcement and communities of color have held two “listening summits” on issues surrounding community policing and reform, with the goal of finding ways to improve the relationship between police and communities of color. At the second summit in August, District Attorney Terry Houck said the conversation would continue in smaller groups.

The parallel efforts sprang up independently of each other, Dorney said.

Key to rebuilding trust, panelists said, is finding ways to reveal the humanity behind both uniforms and front doors. Comick said the children he mentors see police in a different way once they get to know and talk to them. But they’re conditioned by hundreds of years of systemic racism to feel nervous around police as the default.

“They’re human just like we are,” Comick said. “There’s bad on both sides of the fence. But the good on both sides of the fence must work together.”

Part of working together, like during the meetings of the working group, has meant uncomfortable confrontations. Mayfield said he challenged members of law enforcement in the group with recognizing systemic problems and taking their opportunity to make changes.

“We’re not trying to repeat 400 years of nonsense,” he said. “You all have a hand in reshaping that.”

Police want to see some of those changes happen at the state and federal level, so that communities can expect the same procedures from all departments, Granitz said.

He said he expected to be challenged in these meetings.

“This has not been a one-way conversation,” he said.

The responsibility is shared among facets of communities, from home to school, to educate children on civic systems and foster better relationships with systems of power, panelists agreed.

What everyone has in common, they said, is a desire to get home safe.

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