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Jon Sassaman, the chief of the Corvallis Police Department, knows it doesn't have to be a major incident.

Sassaman has been watching racially charged incidents involving law enforcement agencies make news across the United States for months. He knows something similar could happen in Corvallis, and it wouldn't have to be on the same scale as events in Missouri or New York or Florida.

"It wouldn't have to be a shooting," Sassaman said. "Even with an assault or a minor arrest, we could find ourselves with a community divided. People need to be able to trust the Police Department. An open community is a big part of building that trust."

That's why the Corvallis police welcomed a recent opportunity to open the department's annual diversity and inclusion sessions to a pair of trainers who work with the NAACP.

And then the department took an additional step toward openness: That training session was opened to members of the public as well.

All the parties involved say the results thus far have been encouraging.

"We were all surprised and impressed with how open and transparent the Corvallis Police Department was, and that they were open to this," Brandon Lee, one of the discussion leaders, said. 

Added Sassaman: "For me, the outcome was that we realized we all have so much more in common than we do different. I can tell you, since that training, the constant talk is how positive it really was. We felt like we were part of a broader team and a larger group."

Open to talks

The idea for the November session emerged in the wake of dozens of talks between the NAACP and the Corvallis Police Department following the death of Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Martin was the Florida teenager shot to death by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer.

“I had received some complaints regarding racially charged incidents that occurred in the community," Lee said. "But they were anonymous, and they didn’t specify any particular law enforcement agency." He said the complaints mostly involved citizens feeling that they had been racially profiled.

"Jon and his team made it clear that if anything came up, that we should reach out," Lee said. "And when we did, he was true to his word and was open to meeting and talking about these things.”

Lee said that he and other members of the NAACP were satisfied with how the Corvallis Police Department responded to those early complaints.

“They went above and beyond,” Lee said. “From that positive contact came this idea that since we’ve learned so much from one another, maybe we need to take this and bring it to the community.”

Barry Jerkins, president of the Corvallis branch of the NAACP, spent three years in the Navy before working as a federal police officer at the Pearl Harbor Police Department.  The initial meetings with the Police Department started at about the same time as his stint with the NAACP. He found that his experience on both sides was useful.

“I found myself in the middle and dealing with social issues that hadn’t been talked about before in this same way,” Jerkins said, noting that the Police Department rarely met with the local NAACP before those 2012 discussions. “I felt I had a much broader perspective with my law enforcement background and I felt like it gave me some insight on how to approach this.”

Common ground

In the wake of the 2012 discussions, NAACP members continued to look for ways to keep working with area law enforcement agencies.

Lee said NAACP members kept searching for the best ways to keep those discussions alive, and floated the idea of the training sessions with the heads of various law enforcement agencies in Benton County. Sassaman was the first to take them up on the offer, Lee said.

“Not every law enforcement group is this ready to open their doors to the community,” Lee said. “Not everyone is ready for this type of thing, but Jon and his team were.”

So, in November, dozens of community members and 53 sworn-in police officers, along with another 40 employees with the Corvallis Police Department gathered at the Corvallis Masonic Lodge for the training session, designed by Lee and his spouse, Hun Lee.

It marked a dramatic shift from previous training sessions.

New officers with the department take classes on ethics, racial sensitivity and diversity. The department holds an annual community policing forum in February and a diversity/inclusion training session in November. For the past 15 years, those sessions have brought in one or two speakers to address diversity, Sassaman said.

Participants in this November's session were given scenarios related to stereotyping, race relations and policing and were asked to have an open dialogue about how the situations should play out.

Brandon Lee said the purpose was to get people openly talking about the issues in a safe environment and on an equal footing as human beings, rather than as representatives of various groups.

The discussion sliced both ways: The scenarios not only focused on how police officers should act toward the community, but also on how community members should act toward the police.

“So many times, police officers go to work, put on the uniform and go out and do this very difficult job and people often see us as the uniform,” Sassaman said. “We wanted to break that barrier down and we wanted people to see us as human beings and we (as officers) need to be able to see and treat everybody the same.”

Overall, he said, the training was "very different but very positive."

Jerkins said that many in the NAACP were surprised and pleased with the discussion.

Jerkins said that Sassaman "has really put forth a lot of effort trying to do things right and trying to be transparent. I recognize he does want to address these issues and because of that, I am more than willing to work with him. To address social issues in the community, it’s not just one training session. This is something that has to continue.”

And it likely will continue: For starters, the local branch of the NAACP is planning to attend the Corvallis Police Department’s Community Policing Forum for the first time in February. The goal is to speak about the use of force, Jerkins said.

“I think we all are seeing that the work has just begun,” Jerkins said. “But we all recognize that there is a lot of work that needs to be done.”

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Nathan Bruttell covers public safety and courts for the Gazette-Times. Email him at nathan.bruttell@lee.net.

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