The new chief of the Fort Myers Police Department, Derrick Diggs, led the first of several community engagement sessions Thursday that are being touted by the department as the first step toward improving the department’s relationship with the people it polices.
Chief Diggs was just five weeks on the job when he led the first day's outreach sessions. He said the extent of the disconnect between some of the city’s communities and his officers ran deeper than he expected.
“We have a lot of communities that support the police department ... but we have certain communities that, potentially, have the propensity for violence, where we just don’t have that trust, we just don’t have that support," Diggs told a reporter during the meeting. "And it’s far, far greater than I had anticipated.”
To build that trust, Diggs invited two consultants with whom he worked during his former job as police chief in Toledo, Ohio: Dr. Morris Jenkins, the dean of South Missouri State University's College of Health and Human Services, and Dr. N. Saleem Hytlon, with the Washington, D.C.-based Youth and Families in Crisis.
After brief introductions to the roughly 50 people gathered at the Dr. Carrie Robinson Community Center Thursday afternoon, however, the consultants gave way to conversation. Officers and Lee County deputies sat at roundtables alongside church leaders, parents, and others. Many aired grievances, but many more said they are tired of the bad relationship with police. Attendees ranged in age from high school students to retirees, but they all agreed on the significant problems facing the community.
Chief among them was the fear of retaliation for working with the police.
Alibaba Lumumba, the organizer of a neighborhood action group, acknowledged that fear, but called on the community to find the solution.
“You want them to do the job they’re supposed to do?" he asked. "Stop sheltering the murderers of this community.”
That call joined criticism of the department for its unsolved murders, including last October’s Zombiecon shooting that left one dead, and the July shooting at Club Blu that killed two teens. Others spoke about knowing victims of other unsolved murders, some going back more than 20 years.
Crystal Johnson is a mother of four who said she worked hard to overcome her negative perception of police. She even has her kids enrolled in the Young Leos, or Leaders Educating Others, a program run by Dunbar community police officers.
Johnson pointed to national headlines that showed young black men being killed by police elsewhere in the country, and said that only adds to the distrust.
“Everybody is not a criminal, and we do not want to be treated as such," she told the gathered crowd. "There is definitely a lack of respect between the officer and the community. And we want that to change.” The discussion also touched on poor job prospects, ex-cons, mass incarceration, and the war on drugs. At the end of the meeting, Chief Derrick Diggs told the audience—many still emotional after sharing their stories—that the day's discussion was only a first step. He promised similar meetings, and other programs he would not name, in the coming months.