As much of the nation was reeling from yet another act of violence in Baton Rouge, La., hundreds of Wichitans came out to a barbecue at McAdams Park with Wichita police officers.
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Earlier in the week, protesters had planned to march on Sunday, but after organizers met with Police Chief Gordon Ramsay for hours, according to the protesters, they agreed to break bread together instead.
The idea was to open up lines of communication and build trust, from the perspective of the police, and for the protesters. While the march last week was largely young and black, the crowd at the barbecue drew whites, blacks and Hispanics in larger numbers and included more older people and children.
At one table, three men - a black man, a Hispanic man and a white man - sat down with burgers next to Lt. Travis Rakestraw to share their ideas.
It was the first time since 1992 that Jarvis Scott, the black man, said he’d sat down with a police officer, and the other two said it was their first time ever sitting down with an officer.
Capt. Rusty Leeds said that community policing used to be a bigger part of the department, as a response to gang violence in the 1990s. “Then it was the gang violence, and now it’s the conduct of police,” said Leeds, about why the police had to get back out in the community again.
Leeds said that budget issues were part of the reason the police had moved away from these kinds of events.
Rakestraw listened to Ivan Ray, a black student at the University of Kansas who had recently taken a class about racial disparities. He was impressed with how Ray framed the issue of police violence in terms of many other social issues, including poverty and education.
“The community needs more people like you who can see the problems in wide open eyes,” Rakestraw told Ray. “What should we do about it?”
The three men said they were surprised to hear that Rakestraw seemed to care about what they were saying, and that he had thought about the same issues. But they all said that they were planning on still marching.
Rakestraw, in his turn, said that from the police perspective, a conversation like the one they were having at the barbecue felt more productive than many of the protests he’s seen across the nation, which are based on confrontation rather than dialogue. But he had no complaints about the Wichita protest last week that was nonviolent.
“I don’t think it’s a conscious effort,” Rakestraw told them, about why racial biases sometimes persist. “I don’t think anybody does it intentionally but we fill in the gaps with life experiences, what we read in the paper, and we start to view people as a generalization instead of understanding people as individuals.”
The three men nodded.
These smaller conversations, between community members and police, turned into a public forum at around 7 p.m. when hundreds gathered around a microphone to ask questions of Police Chief Gordon Ramsay.
The community did not hold back. One of the first question was whether the black community was being bought off with food? How would a barbecue help with racial profiling?
Another woman told Ramsay about an experience with police where she said she’d been physically mistreated. Ramsay told the crowd that every officer will have a body camera and they will be able to look at that footage with him when they make complaints about officers.
“If you feel mistreated, I want to know about it,” Ramsay said. “If they feel they are being mistreated, at the scene is not the time to argue about it, wait until it’s over.”
Another questioner asked Ramsay about weeding out bad police officers. “Loud and clear I have zero tolerance for racial profiling or racial bias,” Ramsay said.
Ramsay told the questioners that he wanted to hear more about their situations later. Many praised Ramsay for holding the event, and several audience members said that in all the years in Wichita, they couldn’t remember a police chief coming out in the community like this.