How a cookout helped a chief rewrite the community policing playbook

The event that got national attention is just the highest-profile example of steps a Kan. chief has taken to facilitate discussion and build relationships with his community


As part of our year-end coverage, we look back at some of the biggest and most heroic news stories in policing, and reconnect with some of the officers and departments involved in the incidents to find out what has developed since.  
 
In this article, Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay looks back on a cookout his PD held in the wake of multiple protests in his city and explains how his agency approaches community policing.

From the continued wave of negative attention on law enforcement to a dramatic uptick in line-of-duty gunfire deaths, 2016 has been an extremely tumultuous year in policing. But in the aftermath of a devastating pair of ambush attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, a police department in Wichita, Kansas made national headlines for a story of hope – a protest-turned-barbeque that served as a beacon of light in what was arguably the darkest time for police-community relations this year.

The four-hour event – which saw roughly 2,000 people engaging in friendly dialogue with the mayor, city council members, and cops from the Wichita PD – featured dancing, free food, and a public Q&A with Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, in which no subject was off limits. Coined the “First Steps Community Cookout,” the event was just the highest-profile example of the steps Ramsay and the PD have taken to facilitate discussion and actively build relationships with the community they serve.

Connecting before a crisis

(Wichita Police Department Image)
(Wichita Police Department Image)

That the event happened at all can be largely attributed to a solid foundation of dialogue between the department and local community leaders, which Ramsay has taken a lead role in developing since the beginning of his tenure as chief in January. It’s an approach he learned during his 10 years as top cop in Duluth, Minnesota: Building connections before – not after – a crisis occurs in the community.

“I learned the importance of having relationships with key community members, especially community organizers,” Ramsay said. “Building a relationship where we’re on a first-name basis, we have each other’s cellphone numbers, we talk about issues, meet when there’s not a crisis. That was obviously key – that we had a relationship where we could have these discussions and they saw the value in it.”

One of those community organizers is Djuan Wash, who has worked with lawmakers on a number of social justice issues through organizations like Sunflower Community Action and the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and who organized many of the police protests in Wichita. Wash and Ramsay’s relationship dates back to when Ramsay was still interviewing for the chief position.

“He came out and explained that he was a Black Lives Matter supporter, that he understood the historical context of policing and African American communities, and we started off on a really good foot,” Wash said.

In July, community members held a series of protests tied to the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. Ramsay communicated with protest organizers from the very start of the rallies, but Wash and other activists declined the chief’s first few offers for the police force to be in direct communication with protesters, believing, at least initially, that there needed to be some space between police and demonstrators.

“Gordon was always trying to call and ask what he could do to support us. At that point [prior to the barbeque], we just needed to air out our frustrations and figure out what we needed to do as a community to ensure that this [police misconduct] doesn’t continue to happen and that it doesn’t happen here,” Wash said.

Ramsay honored those wishes by keeping the community safe during demonstrations, but at a distance.

“We did a march and there was no police presence,” Wash said. “It was a major difference than what you see in other states – police on the scrimmage line with tear gas and AR-15s, just a very violent clash. We didn’t have that problem – they were policing the area but they were never visible, they let us march,” Wash said. “The next day you saw headlines that you don’t see in other cities. ‘Police chief: We wanted the protest to happen.’ ‘Kansas Highway Patrol calls Black Lives Matter peaceful.’ It was really a major difference.”

An honest conversation

The barbeque was born out of growing concern from community leaders and Ramsay that the tone of the rallies was beginning to trend toward a potentially volatile situation. Ramsay reached out to Wash and other organizers with the idea to put on the cookout – something that he had done regularly during his summers as chief in Duluth.

“I’m passionate about the role police play in society and the good things that we do every minute of every day. And that’s been lost in the narrative,” Ramsay said. “So I know that when people meet our cops in a situation where there’s not a crisis occurring, over food, in a relaxed setting, they’re gonna see a different side to them that they haven’t seen on TV.”

Prior to the cookout, Ramsay sat down with Wash and other organizers to review the changes community members wanted to see in the department. Echoing his strategy from previous protests, Ramsay gave careful consideration to how law enforcement would be perceived at the event. He gave the critical role of keeping the peace to 30 black pastors, who walked around the park and listened for anybody who was upset in order to diffuse situations.

“Police weren’t going to get involved unless it got dangerous,” Ramsay said. “When I spoke to the crowd, the pastors surrounded me. There was an exit plan in case something happened.”

In the hours leading up to the event, some officers expressed fear. The deadly ambush attack on police in Baton Rouge occurred the morning of the cookout. Some officers who were going to bring their kids to the event decided to leave them at home. Wash said some community members seemed equally apprehensive. 

But as the cookout went on, most of that fear gave way to a gathering both productive and celebratory – an “enormous success.”  

“We didn’t think there were going to be as many officers as there were … it was really surprising to have that much support for wanting to see something change,” Wash said. “There were some people who said they had never seen anything like this happen in Wichita.”

The conversations gave both civilians and police officers a venue to unpack weighty topics such as police use of force and implicit bias. It was also an opportunity to get more personal; some officers shared stories with community members of why they got started in police work. Many of the attendees had never had a one-on-one discussion with an officer prior to the barbeque.

“I got a lot of feedback from people that they were proud of their city – that what we had done showed others how to get out of these situations,” Ramsay said.

Even the harshest critics within the department were shocked by the results.

“There were skeptics. Some of them thought I had lost my marbles. Some of them were upset that officers were dancing; they thought it was unprofessional,” Ramsay said. “But when they saw the feedback from the community – the millions and millions of hits of the officers dancing – they realized that it turned out to be better than they had thought it would be. It humanized the officers and reminded the community that cops are people too, they care, they want to be community minded and they want good relationships. This is what we need to be doing instead of fighting – putting a blueprint together to figure this out.”

Rewriting the playbook

As a result of these conversations with the community prior to, during, and after the cookout, the department is now working with local activists on an independent prosecutor for police-involved shootings, department-wide implicit bias training, and ensuring they are up to best practices on asset forfeiture. They also received a grant for increased foot patrols – which will allow the agency to get more officers out of their cars to further improve relationships. Ramsay developed different liaison officers to bridge specific gaps – including an officer for Hispanic outreach, the mentally ill, the LGBTQ community, and the deaf and hard of hearing. He was also instrumental in developing the “God Squad,” a collective of pastors tasked with furthering the connection between cops and the community. After the barbeque, the PD held three more neighborhood-focused cookouts specifically designed to encourage youth and police interaction.

“I got some feedback from other officers [after the story went viral] that said ‘Well, we could never do that in our community – we’d get eaten up.’ I don’t believe that for a minute,” Ramsay said. “It’s almost an occupational hazard in policing – particularly in departments where you’re call to call – you get the “us vs. them” mentality. And I’ve been there; you start to think the only normal people out there are you and other cops – that society has gone mad. But that’s not true – 99 percent of the population supports the police. Take the time to get to know your community other than the one percent who are in crisis all the time and you will find that the community wants to have a good relationship with their police. Take time to build those relationships. When you do, there will be payback in positive ways.”

And while both sides agree that the work never stops, fostering those relationships in Wichita has resulted in a city on a path toward breaking the divisiveness that has been a constant narrative throughout the country this year.

“A lot of people remain skeptical about the work that we’re trying to do with police that isn’t as adversarial and as militant as what folks are doing in other places,” Wash said. “But at the end of the day, I feel like we’ve been effective. Where we have the most impact is through changing policy and through legislation.”

“Try doing different things,” Ramsay said. “The playbook for policing is out the window, and in this day and age we need to rewrite it.”

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