Community Opens Up About Race Relations And Policing In Chatham Forum

By: Jan Sidebotham

Police and fire news

CHATHAM — As conflicts between people of color and police dominate the news, Chatham Chief of Police Mark Pawlina stated that he wants “to get out in front of” the issues.

“Let’s look at ourselves as police and as a community. How are we doing? What can we do better?” Pawlina said at a community policing and race relations forum hosted by Reverend Brian McGurk and St. Christopher’s Church Oct. 18. He assured the crowd that the police do not want to have a “deaf ear — especially with regard to people of color, who have legitimate concerns.”

With few crimes and arrests in Chatham, serving the community is a high priority for police. “I always come away with something when I engage with the community,” Pawlina said. To help him in that engagement, he assembled a panel of experts on community, all people of color: Tony Morrison is the principal of Dennis-Yarmouth high school; Hyacinth Yennie is a community organizer and activist in Hartford, Conn. and has a long history of working with the police and with Chief Pawlina before he came to Chatham; Jonathan Thompson, nicknamed the “mayor of Cape Cod,” produces a video blog for the “Hyannis News.”

At Dennis-Yarmouth High School, Morrison welcomes the service of two regional police officers who work to develop relationships with students. Morrison cited a comment from Reverend Wesley Williams, co-chair of the Martin Luther King Action Team, who was sitting in the audience. The minister said, “We’re talking about relationships where I see you as a human being, and you see me as a human being. Let’s see each other as children of God.”

Yennie echoed the idea that effective community policing is about good relationships. An “Us versus Them” attitude is not helpful. “Make sure that everyone respects one another,” Yennie said, “When you build community, when police know who you are, you feel safer.”

Pawlina added, “[The Police] have to be approachable.” Yennie praised the chief and told the audience they were lucky to have someone like him running the police department. “I’m still in touch with him because of the impact he had on me,” she said.

Thompson talked about growing up black in Hyannis and hearing, “Don’t go to Chatham. You’ll get pulled over.” Later, when an audience member asked him why he and his friends had anticipated being pulled over, Thompson said, “DWB — Driving While Black.” Various people of color, on the panel and in the audience, shared anecdotes of racial hostility on the Cape. Particularly disheartening were stories about racial insensitivity in the schools. One participant mentioned that last year a child wore a shirt with a confederate flag on it to school; another child made a joke about Niger and the “N word.” People of color have a different experience of the Cape from that of white residents, they said.

Pawlina noted that throughout the forum, there were two recurring concerns: respect and bias. The speakers on the panel and members of the audience talked about the need to show respectful behavior to everyone. Several members of the Chatham police department attended, and one of them asked people to consider the difference between an officer saying, “There’s nothing I can do for you” versus “I’m going to try my best, but I can’t promise the outcome you want.” Both sides in a conflict can either increase or de-escalate tension, they said.

Pawlina called on another expert in the audience, Tia Cross, to talk about racial bias. Cross has training in issues of racism and white privilege and has been addressing these issues since the 1970s. She runs workshops and book groups through two committees, Racial Justice and One Earth, One People, at the First Parish Brewster Unitarian Universalist Church. Noting that most white people do not see themselves as racist, she said, “It [racism] is in the air we breathe. It’s embedded in every institution. Because of segregation many white people don’t know black people, and we’re taught to be afraid of black men.” She pointed out that racism is a problem for white people, destructive to them as well as to people of color.

Both Yennie and Thompson talked about the value of “community days,” when police and the communities they serve cordon off a block and celebrate with food and games. The agenda is simply to have fun and to interact. Chatham Sergeant William Massey, the school liaison officer for Monomoy elementary and middle schools, works on building relationships between children and the police and strives to create a climate where children look up to police officers. Several in the audience mentioned the importance of a positive police presence in the schools so that young people can establish a good rapport with the police.

Darren Stocker, Criminal Justice Coordinator at Cape Cod Community College, was in attendance and said, “There are so many opportunities when people can get together, and I wonder why people don’t take advantage of those opportunities.” On Tuesday, Oct. 17, Stocker and Pawlina talked to Mindy Todd on “The Point” on WCAI and promoted the conference “Cape Cod: Making it the Best Place for All.” (The show is available on the WCAI website and as a podcast.) The conference, which is free, will be held Oct. 28 at Cape Cod Community College. Dr. George Kelling, who was also on the radio show, will be the keynote speaker and small groups on homelessness, mental health, opioids, youth matters, and community/police relations will follow. For details, call Rev. Ken Campbell at 413-478-5719.)

While Chatham residents may feel that they are distant from the issues that led Colin Kaepernick and others to protest injustices in law and enforcement, the forum on Oct. 18 brought the concerns of people of color and of the police to their town and allowed open and constructive dialogue.