The Police and Community Engagement Conference, or PACE Conference, was a collaboration between law enforcement and community members that offered a side-by-side understanding of each other’s role in 21st century policing.
The conference took place Thursday and Friday at the Aiken Municipal Building, 214 Park Ave., and featured a wide array of presenters from all over the country with different ideas on how police and the communities they protect must work together in order to create a safer society.
“The point behind this whole conference has been the understanding that community is a vital partner for law enforcement, it is not us and them – police are community and community is police,” said Cynthia Woodberry, community services coordinator with the Aiken Department of Public Safety. “I believe the point of this conference has come across to everyone amazingly. I think the members of the community that came to this conference have realized that they not only want to see change, but they want to be change.”
The PACE Conference brought in more than 175 attendees from more than 30 law enforcement agencies from across the state, said Lt. Jake Mahoney with the Aiken Department of Public Safety.
“We have representatives from the Lowcountry, the Upstate, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, York, Columbia – all major areas have representatives here, along with elected officials, clergy members and concerned citizens,” Mahoney said. “It has just been outstanding with all the interest and support we have been receiving statewide.”
Deputy Chief Operating Officer Dr. Cedric L. Alexander, with the DeKalb County Office of Public Safety, was one presenter at the conference. He said police and communities have always had problems working together across the nation, but explained different ways to go about correcting problems that have caused this long-standing opposition.
“There are departments across the nation that do not reflect their community,” Alexander said. “We must work to change this and make a department as diverse as the community around them. Law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to do this. If a community is 70 percent black and the law enforcement agency protecting this community is 90 percent white, then there is going to be a problem.”
Alexander is also a member of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Alexander spoke about Ferguson, Missouri, being an example of a place where the community and local law enforcement officers have had intense animosity toward one another.
In 2014, an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, which prompted protests by the community for weeks.
“Police have come under a great amount of scrutiny since Ferguson, and it has caused some departments to slow down in fear of creating another Ferguson,” Alexander said. “Departments cannot slow down. The public must realize that you can’t paint a whole department as bad because of one person within the agency committing a horrific act. There will always be a bad apple among the bunch, but that cannot stop a department from doing its job to keep that community safe.”
Alexander said departments that have issues between the department and its community must make changes in order to fix the relationship.
“Police come in contact with a high majority of people within a community that have mental health issues, and police need more training on how to handle someone with a mental health problem,” Alexander explained. “There is police and a community – one cannot exist without the other.”
Mahoney said he believes the seminar was a success and hopes to see more like it across the nation.
“In the end, law enforcement agencies having good connections with their communities is all about the daily effort put in by officers,” Mahoney said. “In Aiken, we have a community that works with us, and we work with the community; and it really shows.”
Tripp Girardeau is the crime and court reporter with the Aiken Standard.