Open Communication Will Keep Unrest From Flaring Up Here

In the wake of civil unrest in Baltimore over the past few weeks — on the heels of similar unrest in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson last summer — there have been a multitude of questions in residential areas large and small, urban and rural, about the likelihood of such unrest taking place in other communities across the nation.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last time residents of communities from the smallest village to the largest metropolis ponder these issues. A brief snapshot of the past 50 years shows this to be true: whether the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles (1992), shootings on the campus of Kent State University (1970), the turmoil that destroyed downtown Detroit (1967), the post-Stanley Cup loss riots in Vancouver (2011), or countless other events, there has been a patchwork of upheaval which can make civilized society turn its collective head and wonder whether the world has gone to hell in a handbasket.

Residents in Palm Beach County are among those asking these questions, but the makeup of our region seems to suggest such a situation would be fairly unlikely. While there have been protests against law enforcement here in Palm Beach County, and there will almost certainly be in the future, those protests have not devolved into destructive riots. In general, we don’t face nearly the levels of poverty and despair that comprise the demographics of inner city Baltimore or Los Angeles. More importantly, disagreements with law enforcement tend to be incidental, not systemic.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns on the local circuit. Since 2000, Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office deputies have shot and killed 45 people; another 38 have been wounded. Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and his investigators found nothing wrong in all but one of the fatal shootings. There is a perception that after the shootings take place, the sheriff is quick to defend his personnel, sometimes even before a report has been published — or in some cases, filed by the officer in question. While we in the media understand this tactic — and, indeed, when it comes to story deadlines, having quick quotes and details certainly helps in the process — if it comes at the risk of inaccurate or outright conflicting information, it leads to suspicion of the powers that be. An element of trust is crucial in any relationship, and once that trust is violated, the relationship can be ruined.

To this end, the PBSO announced Tuesday that it would have an independent agency review its internal affairs investigations, to ensure the PBSO is complying with required law enforcement practices and procedures. This is one of three steps Bradshaw announced as part of a “partnership plan” with the community to ensure transparency and increased community engagement with law enforcement. In addition, the office is working to improve and enhance internal reporting procedures to provide greater accountability, and is in the process of launching regional citizen advisory meetings to better engage the community and have a stronger dialogue about local and regional issues. The goal of these meetings, according to Bradshaw, is to provide greater input from community leaders in all parts of the county about ways his office and the community can better join together to address issues that lead to crime, and ways to work together to enhance community policing efforts.

While it may look at face value like a public relations move, given the increased scrutiny law enforcement officials have been under the past 12 months, we believe Bradshaw’s acceptance of increased transparency makes good political and community sense. The best way of handling a potential uprising is to prevent it from happening in the first place, through sound practices and open communication.