In the wake of the shooting death of an 18-year-old black man and the ensuing racial tension in Ferguson, Mo., the willingness of the Riley County Police Department’s leadership to discuss the potential for such an occurrence here was refreshing.
That willingness underscores Assistant RCPD Director John Doehling’s assessment in Sunday’s Mercury of a crucial difference between Ferguson and Manhattan.
“In Ferguson,” he said, “there’s a distinct lack of trust between the community and the police. … For whatever reason, they don’t trust that review (into the shooting incident) is going to be done properly. That’s where I think we differ… We think that we have a trust relationship with the community that, if such a thing happened, we would be allowed the opportunity to investigate.”
He, RCPD Director Brad Schoen and key training officers are correct to assume that the RCPD has developed a good relationship with the people it serves. And they’re right to recognize that the relationship takes nurturing through the daily actions of RCPD officers and the way they handle incidents that test their judgment, their patience and their professionalism.
Director Schoen’s acknowledgement that the use of force is “something we train on all the time” is reassuring, as is the reality-based nature of the training the officers receive. In addition to responding quickly to an incident, it’s also important to respond appropriately.
As the RCPD officials pointed out, responding appropriately involves using firearms only as a last resort. As Sgt. Pat Tiede of the RCPD’s training office said, “Just showing up in uniform, having a presence, is a show of force.”
And although the RCPD is in the process of exchanging the shotguns in officers’ vehicles for AR-15 rifles, Director Schoen’s skepticism of excess militarization is welcome. Speaking about scenes in Ferguson in which helmeted officers clad in combat fatigues and bullet-proof vests stood near armored vehicles, the director said, “I don’t know that you ever need something like that, especially in a crowd control situation.”
As for the trend toward aggressive militarization, he said, “I think there’s a better way to handle it.”
He’s right. The RCPD continues to seek better ways to handle tense situations. The RCPD isn’t perfect and doesn’t please every citizen. But it’s committed to addressing its flaws just as it addresses complaints from citizens. The upshot is a department that has earned the trust of its community and is a model for police departments across the state and beyond.