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Concerned citizens came together with local law enforcement late last month to bridge the gap that mistrust creates.

The Charles County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People hosted members of the Charles County Sheriff’s Office, Maryland State Police and La Plata Chief of Police Carl Schinner in a panel at a Waldorf church to hear citizens’ concerns with law enforcement and proper protocol when dealing with police. Throughout the two-hour dialogue, respect on both ends was the name of the game.

Edith J. Patterson, former county commissioner and current delegate candidate, moderated. For the sheriff’s office, community liaison Dwight Pettiford was joined by Maj. Rob Cleaveland and Capt. Marvin Butler. The state police sent troopers Mark Galgan and Natasha Rucker, a recent addition to the force.

During the discussion, officers answered all kinds of questions from citizens, ranging from the role of resource officers in schools to why multiple officers sometimes will show up at the scene of a traffic stop when the person being stopped might perceive it as unnecessary and how officers get assigned to various patrol areas. To begin, members of the NAACP’s youth council demonstrated in a skit the right and wrong way to respond when stopped by an officer on the street. In the first, the girl acting as the person being stopped grew belligerent and then physical and was taken away. The second interaction was far more civil.

“What she did in the first situation escalated it. It de-escalated in the second,” NAACP President Janice Wilson said. “It doesn’t have to get to that point.”

“If everyone is respectful, 99.9 percent of the time everything goes well,” Schinner said. “Everything goes more quickly, and everyone can get on their way.”

Pettiford said the skit was a “perfect” example of what could happen in the two situations.

“The one word I’d like to stress is cooperation. That’s the magic word for us,” said Pettiford, who served as an officer in multiple jurisdictions before coming to Charles County. “We’re just looking for that. [The officers] are just trying to do their jobs and get home safe at night.”

Pettiford encouraged community members to look at the issue simply.

“If it ain’t right, it’s wrong,” Pettiford said. “If we continue to do what’s right, we’ll all have a better life.”

One woman in the audience had concerns about police reports and the procedure surrounding them. Cleaveland told the woman every interaction that officers engage in is documented and informed her that citizens certainly have the right to file a formal complaint if they take issue with a police report upon reviewing it.

Schinner said many bodies of law enforcement are examined and accredited by outside organizations and held to a high standard.

“That keeps what we do credible,” Schinner said.

From there, the discussion took a turn toward the importance of openness.

“Public safety is a priority,” Patterson said. “People want to know how safe they’ll be when they move here, and open dialogue is the key. ... We all want safe residents for Charles County.”

Cleaveland stressed the importance the sheriff’s office puts on keeping the community up to date and actively engaged.

“I embrace feedback from the community,” Cleaveland said. “We can take that and build from it.”

“It’s our obligation to the citizens of the county to keep you informed,” he said. “If we’re failing, we want to know. We want to hear about it.”

Butler told the crowd that he didn’t mind giving out the number for his agency-assigned cellphone should citizens wish to reach out to him with their concerns, true to his role as a public servant.

Cleaveland would not comment on open investigations into officer misconduct when asked, explaining that they do not talk about ongoing investigations publicly.

Schinner, who took over the reins in La Plata in November, took time to explain to the crowd that he hopes to effect change in the office there.

“I want the department to mirror the community and the region it polices,” Schinner said. “We want African-American officers working alongside Asian officers working with Caucasian officers. ... When agencies do that, it really stops you from having issues on the street.”

Wilson, at the discussion’s end, was pleased with the result.

“I think it’s been a wonderful dialogue and hope it’s the beginning of many more,” she said.

County resident Curtis Hill spoke of how he was irate at having been stopped for the same issue twice, involving a covering on his license plate. Because he bought it in a store, Hill said he had the right to have it on his vehicle, and when stopped the second time the officer mentioned he knew about the first police interaction already.

“Basically they wasted my time,” Hill said of the two stops. “It’s unprofessional. They do a lot of racial profiling. I don’t care how much data you have: When it comes to police officers it’s not always accurate. Those numbers can be changed. ... I don’t think that’s fair.”

Despite his issues, Hill said he enjoyed participating in the discussion.

“This is exciting. This is a wonderful thing that should be done a lot more if they can, and the county should get more involved,” Hill said.

lrenner@somdnews.com