Tampa law enforcement hope community meeting will help bridge gaps

Haley Hinds Reporting

- Rising tension between law enforcement and citizens has led to fiery protests across the country.

We've witnessed it right in here at home.

Monday night in Tampa, the two sides met at Clair-Mel Elementary in hopes of preventing more clashes and bridging the gap between them.

A school was an appropriate setting because the night was all about learning.

What can citizens and law enforcement teach each other?

What aren't they understanding?

And, what problems can be fixed now before they lead to future misunderstandings or violence?

Just this fall, we witnessed protests of frustration and anger in the streets of Clair-Mel, directed at police after 22-year-old Lavonia Riggins was killed by a Hillsborough County deputy during a SWAT raid.

Though the State Attorney's Office concluded the deputy's actions were justified, the community is still hurting.

"With all the incidents going on with law enforcement and citizens across the nation, the Sheriff was very much concerned and is well aware that anything that happened at these other agencies, that it could happen here," said Maj. Willie Parker of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

HSCO is now part of an effort to revive community law enforcement workshops which began in the 80s.

It's a chance for citizens and deputies to vent opening, honestly and above all, calmly.

"Don't hold back anything. Tell us exactly how you feel. Law enforcement, tell us how you feel," said Commissioner Les Miller.

About 80 people sat at roundtables, first, finding common ground.

They interviewed one another, learning about their jobs, their backgrounds and what they care about most.

Then, they got down to business, sharing real concerns and criticism, from bias to transparency.

"A lot of officers have conditioned minds of all outdated stereotypes, like if you have dreads and golds, you sell drugs," Verlinda Davis said to deputies.

At another table, a deputy explained that when they're not quickly releasing information during a criminal investigation, it doesn't mean they're hiding something.

"We can not provide the community with information right away. We have to do research. We have to do investigation. We have to look at evidence," the deputy said.

At the very end, they offered recommendations, all of which, will be shared with Sheriff David Gee and his deputies so words can be turned into action.

"It's more than a workshop. I think this is the beginning of a movement," said training director Fred Hearns.

There wasn't a lot of yelling or heated conflict as we've seen at other similar meetings.

Instead, there was a lot of constructive conversation and understanding. Organizers say that was their goal in formatting it this way.

"I feel like it gives us a better idea to understand where they are coming from and they are able to understand where we are coming from and what we go through," Davis said.

There will be a total of eight workshops like this in the next year for adults and for kids.

It'll conclude with a retreat where Hillsborough County leaders will take all the concerns and recommendations and come up with long-term solutions.

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