By Becky Aubut
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — On January 27 at 7 p.m., St. John the Evangelist Parish in Attleboro will host a public forum to allow the community to talk to a panel of individuals that will include ministers; Mayor Kevin Dumas, mayor of Attleboro; and Attleboro’s Police Chief Kyle Heagney.
“Clergy have been meeting with the mayor and the police chief on a monthly basis to go over the crime statistics and arrest statistics in the city,” said Father Richard D. Wilson, pastor of St. John the Evangelist and St. Vincent de Paul parishes and member of the newly-launched Greater Attleboro Interfaith Network.
GAIN’s goal is to help build a community of love and justice through open dialogue with key members of the Attleboro community. The idea is to initiate conversations of sensitive subjects such as racial profiling by building up a relationship of trust with those in law enforcement. In order to construct those layers of trust, a foundation needs to be created; GAIN approached Mayor Dumas and Chief Heagney to learn about local police programs, policies and procedures that included GAIN members participating in ride-alongs with the police.
“I had never done a ride-along before but I thought it was important as a Catholic priest to do this because we are the biggest religion in the city,” said Father Wilson. “It was very interesting. We were called upon a situation where a child had wandered away from a family, and we drove across town to help the other two officers. They handled it very well and calmed the situation down.”
Father Wilson remained in the cruiser while the officer got out to assist another officer he saw pulling a car over. The people in the car did have a record but weren’t doing anything illegal, but they seemed suspicious since they were driving around in a neighborhood over and over.
“It’s perfectly legal to do that, but he [the police officer] wanted to make sure they weren’t casing anybody’s house,” said Father Wilson, adding that, incidentally, it was a white officer pulling over two white people.
Though Father Wilson’s experience was rather calm, another minister saw firsthand how the Attleboro police use their training to diffuse situations almost immediately upon arriving to scenes.
“One of the other ministers said that on their ride-along, the police officers were dealing with some situation,” said Father Wilson. “The person the police were questioning kept staring at the minister. The minister didn’t have his collar on; he was dressed like a regular guy. Finally the person they were questioning pointed at the minister and said, ‘That guy there — he’s driving me crazy!’”
The police explained to the man that the gentleman standing behind them was only a minister accompanying them. Though the situation never escalated beyond that, it showed how tenuous some situations can be for police, said Father Wilson.
The police later explained to the minister that they were used to dealing with people like that and know how to act nonchalant, and be non-threatening in their body language when questioning people and that the minister “had gotten all stiff and the person perceived that, and were somehow a threat to him. [The police] knew to be in a relaxed posture,” said Father Wilson.
The Attleboro Police have also initiated a Problem Oriented Policing program that will track people who have had problems with the law in the past but will offer tools for them to get their lives back on track. Using statistical analysis, the department has identified those areas in the community that call most frequently for law enforcement help. When responding to repeat calls in these areas, officers are encouraged to provide the people involved with referrals to other social service resources that might help address larger underlying problems that result in such frequent law enforcement calls.
“It’s almost like a social worker, outreach program; it’s preventative for people who have had brushes with the law to get their life back in order. That benefits the person and the whole city of Attleboro,” said Father Wilson.
The public forum is open to all who wish to attend, and Father Wilson hopes the forum will allow people “to see what the police department is doing and it’s an opportunity for people to bring up concerns to the police department. It’s good to have these contacts to have a better understanding. It’s not an easy time to be a police officer, which as a priest I can understand being judged by just putting on my uniform, and that being judged by a tiny minority of bad apples can make people think the whole barrel is rotten.”