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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Effort continues to break barriers between police, Black community

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Samone Willis says her three younger brothers were typical teenage boys — they spent time hanging out with friends, walking or riding their bikes through the neighborhood.

Willis said their antics resulted in occasional run-ins with the police, but in other instances, the attention from law enforcement was unwarranted.

“Sometimes the encounters with the police officers were during situations that my brothers may have caused, but there were times they felt like they were being picked on by police,” Willis said.

In one instance, her brother was walking home, cutting through a CVS parking lot, when he was stopped by an officer who demanded to know where the boy was going. The boy said he was walking home, and he asked the officer why he had been stopped; the officer refused to explain.

“My brother felt like he was being targeted, and he wasn’t allowed the opportunity for an explanation, although he asked,” Willis said. “There were several occasions where officers were just overly aggressive with my brothers for no apparent reason.”

Because of those interactions, Willis’ brothers harbored negative feelings about police.

The sentiments Willis describes are not unique. In a December 2016 Cato Institute report titled “Policing in America: Understanding Public Attitudes Toward the Police,” a national survey found that views on the police vary based on race and that African-Americans tend to feel less positive overall than their white and Hispanic counterparts. According to the report, African-Americans:

n are far more likely than whites and Hispanics to say that police are too quick to use lethal force;

n are far more likely to say police tactics are generally too harsh, compared to Hispanics and whites;

n are nearly twice as likely as white Americans to report a police officer swearing at them;

n are about twice as likely as white Americans to know someone physically abused by police;

n are five times as likely as caucasians to personally expect worse treatment from police officers and

n are less likely than both whites and Hispanics to rate their local police departments highly for being courteous.

Similar research by other organizations found comparable results. Trends like these are one reason police departments, including IMPD, struggle to recruit minorities.

IMPD Sgt. Kendale Adams said the data has stayed relatively consistent in recent years “but not because of lack of effort.”

“To recruit minorities, it just continues to be a difficult path,” Adams said. “I think most police departments would tell you that.”

Adams said IMPD has resources and staff members — including three African-Americans — dedicated to recruitment.

Sgt. Ida Williams, one recruiter on the team, said increasing diversity on the force is a work in progress, and there are several strategies she and her colleagues are putting into practice.

Williams said recruiters regularly visit college campuses, including HBCUs, and career fairs in Indiana and beyond. Commercials on WTLC, billboards in minority-majority neighborhoods and ads on IndyGo buses are all ways IMPD has tried to get the word out. Utilizing social media sites and embracing partnerships with the local faith community have also been valuable, Williams said.

Being visible in the community and coming face-to-face with residents, especially children, is key to the effort, Williams said.

For Willis, who has been an IMPD officer for about a year, that visibility did the trick.

“I got a chance to meet my first African-American officer (in the fifth grade). I didn’t even know they existed!” she said. “It made me smile, and I told my mom that was something I wanted to do, but at that time I didn’t know how to go about it.”

After she completed college, Willis had a conversation with her brother-in-law, who was fresh out of the military and embarking on a police career. After learning more about the process, Willis was reacquainted with her childhood passion for policing.

Willis said she was not far into the process when she first met Williams. For Willis, seeing another Black woman on the force was incredible.

“She was like a breath of fresh air for a young woman to see. And she was a ranking officer, which was like, wow,” Willis said.

Though her brother-in-law was on the same page, Willis’ brothers weren’t so quick to accept her new career choice.

“They were shocked,” she said. “At first, it was kind of hard for them to understand my decision. As I went through the academy and I started to meet different veteran officers and the policing family, I was able to go back and tell my brothers that the experience we had when we were kids, it’s not like that. …I was able to show them the positive side of policing.”

Now, Willis says, two of her brothers are eyeing careers in law enforcement, and they’ve been asking for her guidance as they prepare for the various admissions tests.

Willis said she appreciates IMPD’s dedication to recruiting diverse officers, because she’s seen firsthand how being a Black woman on the force has impacted the community.

“When I go on certain calls, I’m normally like the only person of color and I’m the only female working with four other guys,” she said.“There could be three other officers on the scene, and (the civilian) will come directly over to me. … I feel like they trust me a little bit more, because I’m a woman and I’m African-American. I don’t have to break certain barriers that (my colleagues) have to break.”

On the other side of the coin, Willis said she sometimes has to take a step back, because her identity — either as an African-American, as a woman, or both — could “agitate a situation.”

“It’s just trying to find a balance of when I can be beneficial, and I have to understand when to walk away,” she said.

Overall, Willis said she thinks the department’s efforts are paying off.

“I felt like there was a gigantic barrier between the police and the community, but (IMPD has) taken tremendous steps to bridge that gap,” she said, adding that some of the responsibility for progress falls on community members, as well. “No matter what the past of policing may have been, the future of policing is changing, and you just have to try to put yourself in the situation, try to make the difference. If we just sit back and twiddle our thumbs and just hope for change, nothing will ever happen.” 

Williams knows there’s more work to be done, and she’s prepared to soldier on. 

“We’re not going to be satisfied until we have exhausted all of our avenues.”

Samone Willis

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