Recently, we have been bombarded with disturbing images from Georgia, Central Park and most recently Minneapolis, where George Floyd died during an encounter with the police, as well as the response from those communities that have reverberated across the nation.
More lives have been needlessly lost due to the continued pervasiveness of racism in our society. We grieve the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and too many before them. It also forces all of us to ask the question - is our community at risk? Are we racist? Do we exude white privilege? Are we silent on the issue? Does the discussion make us uncomfortable?
In watching the videos and reading the news accounts, two themes immediately emerge: that the behavior in these videos reflect failures in police tactics and training as well as the horrific lack of intervention by other officers. When this happens, it makes people doubt the relationship they have with the local police.
Understanding these dynamics, Bristol Police Chief Brian Gould recently communicated to the Bristol officers. His message, in part, stated, “I am calling on each and every one of us to go the extra mile in demonstrating our philosophy of Community Policing. The public should never fear us and there should never be an “us vs. them” mindset. We do not want our Community to experience what other Communities throughout our Nation are experiencing and it is our job to ensure that all are treated with dignity, respect and equity. Even more so when ours is being challenged. The truth of the matter is - it only takes one incident to jeopardize the trust our Community has in us and that is why we must repeatedly demonstrate that we can be trusted. I have the utmost faith and confidence in you all, that you will do the right things, the right way, for the right reasons, at the right time. Please seek out every opportunity you can to solidify our trusted position within our Community.”
From another municipal angle, as city staff work to safely reopen parks, pools, the senior center, libraries and launch summer camps, we need to remember why we are doing this work. We are not opening these public facilities for just certain members of our communities. We support these and all city departments to provide public safety, high quality education and other quality of life services and in order to support and improve the health and well-being of every single person in our community from those who are currently homeless to the wealthiest. The essential services we provide have the power to bring our communities together, but only if we ensure they are safe and welcoming to everyone.
One of the city’s newest committees is the Diversity Council. Last week, its monthly meeting included an open discussion about current events and how people felt about racism, and what we could do to have a community conversation similar to the ones hosted by the Board of Education a year ago. It is a difficult topic, and we are interested in having more people of color, different religions, backgrounds and sexual orientation join the council to help guide the discussion. If you are interested, please call the mayor’s office.
Local government has the power to bring people together and inspire confidence in community spirit, especially as we emerge from the COVID-19 self-isolation mode in the months ahead. It is the goal of the entire City Council to create opportunities for important and difficult discussions, champion equity and inclusion in everything we do, and become advocates in the fight against racism. Please stay tuned for opportunities to participate in these conversations in the coming weeks and months.
Ellen Zoppo-Sassu is the mayor of Bristol.