Canton Police Dept, CFED: Teen lives matter too

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Proclaiming that “teen lives matter” and reaffirming a commitment to community-based policing, several members of the Canton Police Department, in conjunction with Canton Families Embracing Diversity (CFED) and local attorney and law professor Ernst Guerrier, tackled the weighty subject of police/community relations head-on at a public forum held last Wednesday evening in the Canton High School cafeteria.

Police Chief Ken Berkowitz and Attorney Ernst Guerrier (Tim O'Connor photo)

Police Chief Ken Berkowitz and Attorney Ernst Guerrier (Tim O’Connor photo)

Led by Police Chief Ken Berkowitz and Guerrier, the program examined a range of relevant topics — from recent high-profile police shooting incidents to individual biases to the use of Tasers and body cameras. Attendees also received a primer on the rules of engagement and got a chance to meet several CPD officers while learning some of the philosophies and core values that drive the CPD’s mission.

As Berkowitz stressed early in the presentation, “It’s not about catching bad guys. It’s [about] saving lives. It’s meeting people in the community. It’s getting out and doing these types of things.”

Last week’s event marked the second time in the past four months that the chief has addressed these issues in a public forum. And while he lamented the lack of young people in the audience and the overall low turnout, both he and Guerrier were delighted to see several school and community leaders in attendance, including Superintendent Jeff Granatino, Board of Selectmen Chairman John Connolly, and Canton High School Principal Derek Folan.

“I also want to take the opportunity to thank every single one of the members of the Canton Police because they’re choosing to tackle this issue head on,” said Guerrier, who lives in Canton. “I know we continue to be disappointed sometimes by the number of people that show up. I continue to be excited by the number of people that do show up because each one that we reach we are making a positive [difference].”

At the same time, Guerrier made it clear that the youth of Canton, and especially young people of color, are the reason for these meetings.

“I have a vested interest,” he said. “The reality of my son or daughter being stopped by a police officer is greater than what you may think.”

He added that while many of the high-profile shooting incidents have occurred in other parts of the country, the larger issues “are not confined to a particular community; it’s in our backyard.”

Both Guerrier and Berkowitz agreed that the problem is mainly one of perception — and perception, they insisted, is not often reality.

Guerrier, for instance, said that he was taught from a young age to run from police and that “they’re just not our friends.” Berkowitz, meanwhile, stressed that everyone has biases and they are based on a variety of factors, including upbringing, religion, and past experience.

“We need to recognize that we all have biases,” Berkowitz said, “and we need to make sure that we’re aware of it — we’re aware of what they are for us and we check them at the door, especially when you come to work as a policeman. But really for anybody — young kids meeting new friends, or walking down the street and seeing someone, or a new roommate at Northeastern, or a car that you pull over at 3 in the morning on [Route] 138.”

Both speakers said they have learned to be more open-minded and have actually learned quite a bit from one another. Guerrier said he learned from Berkowitz that a misunderstanding involving his wife and the Canton Police was not racially motivated but rather was based on other factors that were perfectly reasonable for the officer to consider. Berkowitz, meanwhile, said that Guerrier taught him to see the July 2014 death of Eric Garner, who was placed in a chokehold by a New York police officer, in an entirely different light.

“They could have walked away and they didn’t and someone died because of it,” Berkowitz said. “And after soul searching I want to say publicly I agree with [Guerrier].”

During the course of the presentation, Berkowitz and some of his fellow CPD officers explained when and in what circumstances police officers are trained to use deadly force and the “tunnel vision” and stress associated with such incidents. They also explained why they do not fire warning shots — in order to avoid injuring a bystander — and how they are trained to always “move forward” when confronted with a potential threat.

Yet Berkowitz also made it clear that certain longstanding police practices may be changing in the coming years.

“I’ll tell you what, right now, within the next year, write it down, police officers are going to have more de-escalation training,” he said. “They’re going to learn about backing up if they can, safely. They’re going to talk about tactical retreat. I’ll guarantee you because the public wants it; the police want it. It’s coming.”

On the subject of body cameras, Berkowitz said he is “all for them” and is proud of the conduct of every CPD officer.

“We’ve put in for body cameras. I am pro body cameras,” he said. “I would have every officer [wearing one] and I would wear one myself if it was legal to do so in Massachusetts. It’s just right now the attorney general has not ruled on it and the legislature has not passed anything. I think it’s going to be here within the next couple of years. I think it’s going to be nationwide.”

The chief said he wishes that citizens could see what officers endure on the job. “I wish you could see what it’s like for someone to spit in your face at 3 in the morning,” he said. “I wish you could see some of the stuff that I’ve seen. I wish the kids could see some of the stuff I’ve seen when I’ve gone to drug overdoses. I wish they could see cars wrapped around trees with dead people in it because they were drinking and driving.”

Berkowitz said he believes strongly in transparency and he extended an open invitation to any young person or community member to visit the station this summer and take a ride with him in a police car. He also asked for the help of CFED and the public at large in identifying and recruiting minority and female candidates to further diversify the police force in Canton — a top priority of his going back to his appointment as chief 10 years ago.

He compared a recent photo he took at the Hansen Elementary School, which includes students of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities, to a photo he took of the department, which he acknowledged was “awfully white.”

“If we could get anybody to look like that first picture instead of that [department] picture, believe me I would be thrilled,” he said.

At the conclusion of the forum, CFED member Cynthia Holcombe thanked the Canton Police for their participation and pledged support to the department in its efforts to diversify the force. She also stressed that forums like that one would not be a “one-time deal.”

“I think community policing is key,” she said. “I think it’s very important and I think that is where you are going to see changes — when you have that connection and you have that relationship and that trust.”

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