FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Neighborhoods along Fairfield Avenue is making an effort to get to know one of the police officers who spends his day patrolling their streets.
A new grassroots group in Fort Wayne called Americans for Prosperity is looking to open up the conversation about criminal justice reform in the wake of George Floyd protests earlier this year.
They are aiming to build trust between the officers and the people of Fort Wayne, starting with strengthening communication between the city’s police and the communities they serve, by moving past the notion that there are only two sides of the issue to stand on.
“The narrative around this whole story, this murder, this offensive, outrageous action has been either you’re pro-cop or you’re anti-cop,” said Graham Renbarger, who works with the group. “What we’re trying to do is go beyond that, go past that. Get rid of that false choice.”
To help build up communication, they organized their “Walking the Beat” event. They blocked out time for a discussion between neighbors and an officer assigned to their area and then went and talked to people around the area. Darren Lapsley, who lives in Fairfield Neighborhood and works with Americans for Prosperity, hopes with time and more interactions the community will be able to go straight to officers with concerns.
“If there is an incident with police in the future, we can sit down and have healthy conversations and not go and protest and things like that,” said Lapsley. “Things like that are necessary, but in Fort Wayne as I see it and the neighborhood that I live in, walking around and talking to people is the most effective way in getting through to people on a ground level.”
Fort Wayne Police Officer Tom Vachon spends his days patrolling the Fairfield area. He said getting to know the people on his beat is difficult given the volume of calls his area sees.
“Oftentimes, we’re going from one incident to another,” said Vachon. “Occasionally, we’re able to pull over and chat with some people but we’re basically so busy during our normal work hours that sometimes it’s difficult to interact.”
During the discussion portion, people asked Vachon about department demographics, primarily the number of officers who live outside of the Fort Wayne area. Vachon said FWPD will accept applications from people living within 50 miles of Allen County. However, applicants must live in the state of Indiana.
According to Vachon, the department has seen a downward trend in the number of applicants they receive for each new class of officers. He said when he joined the force in the 1980s, there were around 2,000 applicants for 30 to 40 positions. Now, he said the department only sees about 200 applicants for the same positions. He explained there are many factors, but one is that while Fort Wayne is the second-largest city in the state, it ranks somewhere in the 70s in terms of pay. That leads many to opt for higher-paying positions in places like Carmel.
Several people who own businesses in the Fairfield area also attended the event. Growing Minds is an educational service on Fairfield that often deals with youth who are on probation. Co-owner Carlos Brooks believes that these young people would be better served if they were able to interact with officers in a positive environment, outside of regular police work.
“I think there’s a lack of education and with that, that’s where the mistakes are had so today is our effort to kind of create some of those relationships so that we don’t have those missteps,” said Brooks.
The Americans for Prosperity group plan on hosting another event at Growing Minds on September 12. They hope to have a career fair of sorts happening as well as a mural painting.