Despite an afternoon that was admittedly tense after a midtown shooting, a community forum to discuss the use of force by the Anchorage Police Department was, well, light.
Consider these interactions:
• When Sgt. Derek Hsieh ribbed Police Chief Mark Mew for printing out his notes in “eight-point font” Mew decided to give it right back, offering Hsieh his reading glasses.
• Police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker told an anecdote about his son, Benjamin, getting pulled over as teenager and the relief the elder Parker felt when the officer involved called him.
• Douglas Pace, after asking a few questions about the police department's Crisis Intervention Team’s work with the mentally handicapped, joked that he had his chainsaw and ax ready to go if anyone needed help with trees after last weekend's windstorm.
It was even Police Community Relations Task Force Chair Rev. Dr. William Greene's birthday.
Despite a serious agenda and some somber moments, police and members of the Anchorage Police Community Task Force largely had a good time connecting with about 30 members of the public Thursday night. It was unlike a meeting earlier this summer, where a member of the Polynesian community accused the police of unnecessarily killing 26-year-old Shane Tasi, a Mountain View father who was shot after he brandished a stick at a police officer.
Facilitating the meeting was Rosa Melendez, regional director of the Region 10 community-relations arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Melendez didn't talk much. But Chief Mew and other officers each spoke about 10 minutes on three different topics – the basics of police behavior, what residents should do if stopped by officers, and how police respond to resistance.
The emphasis was on involving the community. Melendez said the Department of Justice worked with the municipality 20 years ago to help start the Police Community Relations Task Force, a group that serves as a liaison between Anchorage's ethnic communities and APD. Melendez said her agency assists with conflict resolution, if needed.
“We don't investigate, we don't assign blame,” she said. “We facilitate and assist the community.”
She's been visiting with community leaders in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage this week to hear concerns. Melendez said neither community leaders nor law enforcement should assume residents know the “system” well. That requires work by the department.
“Helping entities explain procedures helps break down barriers,” she said.
Rhonda Easley, an independent-living advocate with Access Alaska, had encouraged some of her clients to come to the event Thursday, and several deaf residents cited examples of mistreatment.
Easley, who is deaf, said through an interpreter that more work needs to be done both in the deaf community and the police department to raise awareness.
“The deaf don't know how to ask (for an interpreter),” she said. “They find themselves trying to gesture back and forth. They need to be empowered to ask for help.”
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com