While some residents and police officers believe Johnson County is inclusive to all types of people, others shared experiences that show that the community has room to improve.
A Franklin College employee reported that she and her spouse, who is a minority, have slurs yelled at them about every third time they go out in public.
Minority college students have reported beer cans thrown and racial slurs yelled at them while in downtown Franklin at night. Others have reported being followed by employees in stores while doing their shopping. A professor said he has to drive by multiple Confederate flags every day to get to work at the college.
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A panel organized by the Franklin College Office of Diversity and Inclusion on Tuesday sought to address the divide that can sometimes be between law enforcement officials and the community and to bring issues to light as the first step to finding solutions.
Panelists included a Franklin College professor, two local law enforcement officers, an Indiana State Police officer and a leader of a nonprofit Indianapolis organization.
All panelists agreed that opening the dialogue with a panel is one of the first and best steps to begin bridging the divide.
“This is what we have to do; we have to have the tough conversations,” said Ontay Johnson, executive director of 100 Black Men of Indianapolis.
Johnson County is in the unique position of bordering Indianapolis and every day residents of different religions or cultures move into the county, said Randy Werden, Johnson County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy.
Panelists answered questions from David Carlson, who asked them to detail the greatest challenges they face in respect and civility and what police officers can and can’t do.
About 30 people, who had participated in an organized march from Franklin College, asked questions, such as how officers are trained to deal with cultural diversity and how to address issues that arise in the community that are not necessarily crimes, but make residents feel unsafe or unwelcome.
Police can and should take reports on what happens in the community, including when racial slurs are shouted and incidences when a resident or visitor may be made to feel unsafe, Franklin police chief Tim O’Sullivan said.
However, most of those incidences are not technically crimes, he said.
“It’s not against the law. It is morally wrong, but I can’t police that,” O’Sullivan said.
All the police officers reported that the offices they work for require diversity and cultural sensitivity training.
However, the ratio of police officers to residents of Johnson County is about 1 to 659, Werden said. Officers need the community’s help to make sure it is safe and inclusive, he said.
“We can’t do it by ourselves; it takes a village to do this,” he said.
National incidents have brought these issues to the forefront and to the front of people’s minds, which is one of the reasons the panel was planned, said Carlson, religion and philosophy professor at Franklin College.
A human rights dinner in Columbus inspired the religion professor to host a panel. The county could benefit from an event or process that allows community members to report human rights complaints, even if they are not a crime, Carlson said.
And while police officers go through training to help avoid a racially-motivated incident in Johnson County, a split second decision by an officer could put Johnson County in the spotlight, Werden said.
“It takes one incident to put us back years,” he said.
Most of the panelists made the point that most officers are good people who want to protect and serve the community and that decisions made by officers in other parts of the country should not influence the community’s view of local officers.
“When it happens, all of a sudden it is all police officers,” Werden said.
An audience member asked about the policies for use of force in local police departments.
Resident should understand that officers have limited time to make a decision in the middle of an incident that could potentially save their lives, said Precious Cornner-Jones, an Indiana State Police officer.
“It is easier to judge what could have been done until you’re in that situation,” she said.