Police changes are coming

A second meeting aimed at improving relations between law enforcement and the community occurred last week.
A second meeting aimed at improving relations between law enforcement and the community occurred last week.

Wichita has seen its own deadly confrontations between police and residents in recent years, without seeing decisions clearing the involved officers lead to unrest, violence and conflagration. But there is a need for greater understanding, better communication and, when things go wrong, more accountability.

The painful examples provided in 2014 by Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island have presented the Wichita community with an opportunity, which it’s taken up with laudable seriousness and a long-term commitment.

The welcome efforts continued last week, with a second meeting aimed at improving relations between law enforcement and the community. A follow-up to last summer’s “No Ferguson Here” gathering, the Century II event updated the crowd of 200 on what City Hall is doing and allowed for public input on what else might change.

One vital measure already seems to be on the way – another 444 body cameras for Wichita police officers, and the equipment needed to implement them across the force by Dec. 31, 2015. City officials are right to see the $927,000 purchase as urgent enough to merit grounding the police helicopter and redirecting grant money and cash seized in drug cases.

Though cameras can’t see and account for everything – or guarantee an officer will be prosecuted when his actions cross the line, as demonstrated by the case of Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island – they can promote transparency and provide undeniable evidence. That’s why President Obama has proposed to help local police departments buy 50,000 body cameras. The newly GOP-controlled Congress shouldn’t dismiss the president’s $75 million idea.

Acting Wichita Police Chief Nelson Mosley told the crowd that 20 more police officers will have crisis intervention training during 2015 and that the department has plans to refocus efforts on community policing and is exploring alternatives to the current review board.

That last initiative is essential, as Wichita needs a panel to scrutinize officer-involved shootings that has the trust of citizens and law enforcement alike.

And as state Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, pointed out at the meeting: “We need to include more diversity on our police force.”

Though it has sent a powerful message to the community in recent years to see an African-American mayor, police chief and now acting police chief in Wichita, the numbers don’t hold up across the department. Only 7.5 percent of the force was African-American as of last summer, compared with 11 percent of the population. Hispanics make up 15 percent of the population but 7 percent of the police force (and only about 20 employees speak Spanish).

Mosley has a point in noting the trouble filling current recruit classes and the need for community members to encourage promising applicants. But better diversity must be a top goal as the department wraps up its full-scale organizational assessment and acts accordingly.

Mosley, Mayor Carl Brewer, City Manager Robert Layton and others, including faith leaders, deserve praise for all that’s happened so far, and encouragement for the changes coming. A safer community should result.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman