The shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer during a street confrontation in Ferguson, Missouri has sparked debate about racial divisions in America, and the sometimes hostile relationship between police and some communities. Many police departments, including the one in racially diverse Long Beach, California, are using a technique called community policing to both fight crime and improve relations.
Through the years, the city of Long Beach has struggled with gang violence, poverty, and racial tensions among residents and with police.
Resident Jacob Sarenana, 22, said he has experienced it firsthand.
“They always try to mess with me. I ask 'what’s the reason for pulling me over?' [The police will say] 'Oh, because you fit the description.' Really? Really, yeah, I guess I’m always fitting the description then, because I’m always getting pulled over,” said Sarenana.
Community activist Darick Simpson has been working to improve relations by coordinating meetings between young people and officers.
Simpson said in a city where more than 30% of youth under 17 are poor, poverty and racial differences become the causes of conflict.
“With any differences come some misunderstanding. People bring their culture, they bring that history into the workplace into schools, into different social scenarios,” said Simpson.
While racial differences can cause conflict, Simpson said he has seen improvement over the years. Last year, the city saw its lowest violent crime rate in more than 40 years. So far this year, the numbers are even lower.
Don Rodriguez works with young people in the city, and said officers are more involved with the community than ever before.
“Now we’re seeing more community people involved in the policing, working with the police, police getting a better feel of the community,” said Rodriguez.
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said that in past years, officers would tell the community what the problems were and try to fix them. But that philosophy has changed into one of “community policing” -- partnering with citizens and community leaders to solve deep-rooted problems in the neighborhoods.
“We build a team. And when you have a team, when a crisis comes up, you’re not dealing with it by yourself. And too often when we see things get volatile across America, whether it’s a racial issue or another similar type of issue -- it’s often because there aren’t those pre-existing relationships in place,” explained McDonnell.
But, he pointed out, even successful partnerships are not a guarantee that conflicts won’t happen.
“We will always have issues that arise. We will always have that potential for conflict. It’s not if it happens, it’s when, and more importantly, how we deal with it when it does happen,” said McDonnell.
McDonnell said the key to shifting deep-rooted biases is reaching out to young people all the time, not just when a crime has occurred.