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Police officers, communities of color reflect on the struggle to build trust

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(LOS ANGELES) — The ambush of two Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies this weekend shocked the country, but it was only the latest incident during a summer of unrest that included nightly stand-offs between police and protesters against police brutality.

While the details and motive for this weekend’s ambush remain unknown, the incident illustrates the fears of many of those in uniform. These fears have only been exacerbated by a series of shootings and killings of Black men, including George Floyd, that have soured the public’s attitudes toward police.

“There is much work to be done, but we can’t do it alone. We need to have our community members join with us so that we can see a positive future in American policing, so that we can start to change some of the things,” said police captain Yulanda Williams.

The sheriff’s deputies shot over the weekend were taken to an emergency room in south LA, where a small group of protesters gathered outside to heckle the officers. The shooting follows rising tensions between police and civilians in the area after sheriff deputies shot and killed Dijon Kizzee in broad daylight on Aug. 31. Police and eyewitnesses said Kizzee appeared unarmed at the time of the shooting.

“People wouldn’t be out here, the outpouring wouldn’t be out here if this wasn’t murder. Look at all the outpouring. It wouldn’t be like this if this wasn’t murder. This was murder,” said Reggie Cole, Kizzee’s friend.

Cole was with Kizzee just before he was killed last month, and says he’s a survivor of the gang wars in the Westmont neighborhood of LA, where he says there’s still a heavy handed presence by the LA sheriffs.

“The classic definition of a police officer — to serve and protect — has no meaning around here,” said Cole.

Cole was wrongfully charged and convicted of murder in 1994. He spent 16 years in prison and 10 of those years in solitary confinement before being exonerated in 2009.

“In my opinion, law enforcement should be held more responsible than a layman — than a person in the streets. You’re supposed to know the law,” he said. “You should have a higher accountability than a normal person because you’re there to uphold the law. Our whole thing is that we want justice for families. We just want justice. Where is the accountability?”

Compton Mayor Aja Brown believes the way to build trust between communities and police is to increase accountability in law enforcement.

“There’s just, I believe, a disconnect between community and law enforcement and there is an overarching feeling of not feeling safe in regards to law enforcement,” said Brown. “There are so many instances of unanswered justice for our community, and it’s really hard to tell someone to heal when there hasn’t been any form of restitution or reconciliation or atonement.”

As of now, one of the ambushed LA officers remains in the hospital and the FBI is offering a reward for information leading to the arrest of the gunman.

“We’re out here to protect and the fact that somebody would do that, it’s kind of a hurt feeling,” said Ron Hernandez, the president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. “Like why would somebody do that to us? It’s personal, it’s heartbreaking that somebody would try to kill one of us?”

Hernandez said both officers are recuperating. But the 36 year veteran of the LA Sheriff’s Department insisted that while the ambush might make deputies more cautious it would not otherwise change their behavior or protocol.

Williams said she is worried that videos of both Black men and officers being shot are getting politicized.

“We need to be respectful of life, and we need to recognize when you kill someone, they’re not going to come back,” said Williams.

As an officer of color herself, Williams said that this summer, she has found herself navigating between the hurt in her community and the frustration of her colleagues.

“We want to be able to establish a much better relationship, but right now, many officers are afraid of the unknown,” said Williams. “My brothers and sisters in blue need to recognize that we can’t take this personally. However, we can use this moment in time where people are angry… We can use it as an opportunity to be better, to be stronger.”

Corporal Ryan Tillman, of the Chino Police Department, is trying to “rebrand” the message police officers are sending into their community.

“When I put that uniform on, my goal is to go out there, change a perception of how people view police officers,” said Tillman. “What really goes in my mind is really wanting to be a change agent for our community and rebranding what law enforcement looks like.”

Tillman is the founder of Breaking Barriers United, a group aimed at repairing the bond between law enforcement and the community through workshops and mentorship.

“I was not a fan of police officers. Once I became a police officer, I saw the job completely different, and so one of the things I’ve done from early on is acknowledge our wrongs,” he said. “I’ve told people I’m sorry on behalf of a lot of bad policing you’ve seen out there. And then what that has allowed me to do is now it lays the foundation of honesty, transparency and empathy.”

Even as programs like Breaking Barriers United work to build trust between the two communities, some believe making amends needs to extend to structural change.

Cole said on behalf of his community, “The only way we can change this situation is for us to change the way [law enforcement] deals with us: through legislation.”

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