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Faith-based leaders in Tampa aim to improve police-community relations

TAMPA — A forum held by local clergy groups drew about 100 people to the Beulah Baptist Institutional Church late Thursday to discuss relations between local law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

The meeting got heated when Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Maj. Willie Parker said his department has strong ties to the black community.

Donna Davis, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Tampa, disputed the statement. She said Thursday's event amounted to little more than bureaucrats "massaging us."

"This holding of court, if you will, is not serving the needs of people out in the streets," Davis said.

Thursday marked one week since a black gunman shot and killed five law enforcement officers in Dallas after a Black Lives Matter protest. Days earlier, a pair of fatal police shootings of black men sparked protests throughout the nation.

That tense week was followed by events and protests throughout the Tampa Bay area. Several hundred people packed a Tampa church for a Black Lives Matter Tampa meeting last Friday. And about 150 protesters blocked Ashley Drive in downtown Tampa on Monday.

The turmoil of the last two weeks is an indictment of the poor relationship between police departments nationwide and the people they serve, said W. James Favorite, a pastor at Beulah Baptist International Church.

"They don't know us and we don't know them," Favorite said.

It's a dynamic Favorite said he sees in Tampa. He'd like to see more police officers come to schools to speak with kids about what they do.

Favorite also sees a glaring need to repair the economic disparity between racial groups in the United States.

"There is a racial divide in this country that seems to be mounting rather than lessening," he said. "When you talk about division in the community we tend to think in terms of physical division and the way we talk to one another, but it's also an economic divide."

One place local officers can start is by getting out of their cruisers, said Sonya Williams, 47. The Tampa resident said that will help police sort out other challenges.

"I know when I was growing up in West Tampa, the officers used to walk the beat," Williams said. "It's a lack of that. We don't have that anymore. Stop the racial profiling, because it happens."

Tampa police Chief Eric Ward echoed Parker's praise of police-community relations in Hillsborough County. He believes his department has improved its ties with those they are tasked to serve.

"I teach the officers to treat the community with dignity and respect," Ward said.

But he said improving police-community relations is a two-way street. "We can't win the neighborhoods without the community getting out … and helping us," he said.

Contact Samuel Howard at (813) 226-3373 or showard@tampabay.com. Follow @SamuelHHoward.

Faith-based leaders in Tampa aim to improve police-community relations 07/14/16 [Last modified: Thursday, July 14, 2016 9:56pm]
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