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Peace with Police

Grassroots group works to build better relationship between cops and community.

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Sunshine, a transgender advocate for the homeless, used to walk the streets of Claybrook as a lady of the night to fuel her drug habit. But these days, the former prostitute says she only walks down Claybrook to get to the corner store or to attend homeless advocacy meetings at Manna House on Jefferson.

Sunshine, who only goes by that name, says she's cleaned up her act. She's no longer on drugs, no longer prostituting, and no longer homeless. But she said she often faces harassment from police officers when they see her walking down Claybrook, a known hangout for transgender prostitutes.

"Me and my boyfriend recently got stopped just walking to the store at the corner on Claybrook. The police asked us what we were doing, and they ran our names," Sunshine said. "They saw that I had a prostitution charge, and the officer asked my boyfriend, 'Don't you know you're walking with a punk?'"

It's situations like these that are fueling a new collaboration between the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center and the Memphis Police Department (MPD). Members of minority groups who feel they are disenfranchised or harassed by police are meeting monthly with officers to try to reconcile their differences.

Specifically, the reconciliation group is addressing harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Memphians, profiling of African-American residents and youth, and bridging the trust gap for Latinos, who may have a cultural fear of the police regardless of their citizenship status.

"Some of the issues that came up at the meeting I sat in on, well, they ruffled your feathers a little because of the perception problems," said MPD deputy chief Anthony Berryhill. "But I think the majority [of what needs to be resolved in] this reconciliation process is a lack of communication. They're not familiar with us, and we're not familiar with them. You know how we are as human beings: The unfamiliar is a little scary."

Part of that process, said the Peace & Justice Center's police reconciliation coordinator Melissa Miller, involves emphasizing to the public the importance of filing complaints when they feel they're being harassed by police.

"In these core group meetings we've had, Berryhill and Major Greene are at the table talking to the citizens and hearing their complaints. You can see these officers actually listening because some of this hasn't yet made it to the top [of the MPD command]," Miller said.

"If we have some officers on the streets who are not following policy and treating people respectfully, then we want [the victim] to file a complaint," Berryhill said. "It will be investigated and [the officer] will be dealt with."

For example, Sunshine said an officer recently snatched her cell phone away and broke it when she was trying to record the heated conversation between herself and an officer. But since she didn't get the officer's badge or car number, she said she wasn't able to file a formal complaint.

Brad Watkins with the Peace & Justice Center said the group is also trying to make sure MPD director Toney Armstrong's new community policing model, which focuses not just on making arrests but building relationships with community members, is here to stay.

"We want to make sure there's a real system of community policing in place that has the community as a partner, so that if there is a new administration someday, this system won't go by the wayside," Watkins said.

For now, leaders from the LGBT, African-American, and Latino communities as well as youth representatives, are meeting with police on the second Tuesday of each month to develop a reconciliation strategy. Eventually, the public will be invited to share concerns in a public forum this fall.

"The center will be engaged in this process for years," Watkins said. "You can't fix these relationships between police and the community overnight. They've been built by generations of incident after incident and lots of abuse."

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