Race Forum Branches Out Into Discussion About Connecting With Kids

By: Russ Allen

Chatham Police Chief Mark Pawlina, left, and Jonathan “JT” Thompson. RUSS ALLEN PHOTO

CHATHAM – Times change, as do concerns and items on the public’s agenda. This became very evident last Thursday evening when the third in a “Series on Race Relations and Community Policing” was held at Saint Christopher’s Episcopal Church.

Jointly sponsored by the Reverend Brian W. McGurk, rector of the church, and Chatham Police Chief Mark Pawlina, the previous two well-attended events had seen lively discussions and exchanges on how the police can better serve persons of color in the Chatham community. This time only a handful of residents joined members of the Chatham Police Department to hear comments by Jonathan “JT” Thompson, known as the “Mayor of Cape Cod,” and Chief Pawlina.

According to its public announcement and invitation, this forum was to “focus on what can be done to improve the relations between all racial groups and the police, as well as in our community as a whole.” Early on Thompson expressed the opinion that the issue of police violence against people of color that had motivated many to attend the prior two sessions was less a concern for people today, in part because many of the contemporary news reports of such incidents are actually two or more years old.

Thus, a conversation intended to focus on police relations with people of color became one about children and teenagers, especially through the interaction between students and police resource officers in the school system. Considerable concern was expressed by those present over modern changes in socialization due to social media and technology as well as the difficulty many parents face in creating time to be with their children. While these can affect people of color, it was recognized that most families face the same challenges regardless of race. The overall opinion of those present was that the involvement of police officers with younger and middle school children is the best, if still limited, opportunity to address this issue.

Race relations were still a part of the discussion, though not at the level of the two previous events in the series nor as envisioned by those planning this one. The opinion was expressed that most Chatham residents do not believe racism is an issue in their community, which may in part explain the small attendance. Thompson responded that racism is actually there, but basically latent because there are few opportunities for residents of Chatham to experience it through interaction with persons of color. This is due to economic realities that make Chatham too costly for those with low incomes to live there, but also because of a sense of isolation that pervades Chatham’s society, distancing its residents from locations on the Cape where there are significant numbers of people of color.

Disconnection of kids from kids, and parents from their children, less personal interaction between friends and more dependence on texting and posting on Instagram, isolation, and other activities like sports that compete with family events for time and attention where identified as realities that are often addressed by teachers who have more interaction with students on a day-to-day basis than do many parents. As a result, the role of the school resource officer has become important in bridging the gap between children and police. Many present believed that this approach is most effective in the late elementary school and middle school levels, but less so with high school students. Thompson holds that ninth grade is the cutoff point beyond which any such approach ceases to be effective.

Toward the end of the 90 minute event attention turned back to the issue of racism when the question “What are you doing in your area?” was raised. While those present believe racism is a reality even in Chatham, they felt that many residents are convinced it does not exist. This makes it hard to encourage people to leave their comfort zone in order to participate in an activity that addresses it, especially if that is identified as being focused on racism. On that note Chief Pawlina thanked those in attendance for coming.