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Ferguson highlights race relations with police

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The National Guard was deployed to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, Monday night, trying to restore peace to the city.

Earlier in the day, President Barack Obama spoke, again, about the violence that has followed in the nine days since a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager.

Demonstrations have alternated between peaceful and violent as protesters smashed windows and looted and law enforcement responded with tear gas. The events have started a national discussion on race relations with police.

“I’m monitoring it closely just to make me more aware of what’s going on there (in Ferguson), but I feel very, very comfortable with the relationship our police department has with our community,” said Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman.

Chief Jerman can easily list off several programs the police department uses to build community. He said that piece is vital in building relationships, and that he’s happy with his department.

“I’ve yet to receive a complaint that an officer’s actions were racially motivated. So, I am very encouraged,” Chief Jerman said.

Arrest information provided by police recorded 9,625 arrests in 2013. Of those arrested, 67.1% were white and 31.4% were black. By comparison, the most recent data from the US Census lists the population of Cedar Rapids as 88% white and 5.6% black.

Karl Cassell at Horizons said, as the situation in Ferguson continues, it’s a good time to stop and reflect.

He said the African-American community in Cedar Rapids has varying opinions on relationships with police.

“That they’ve been heavy handed in areas that they shouldn’t or they’ve been talked to in a disrespectful manner — yeah, there’s both sides. Some would say they have done a good job and others would say they have some work to do,” Cassell said.

Chief Jerman said one thing he’s working on is getting a more diverse department. He said, of the 206 sworn officers on the force, three are African-American.

“I would like to reflect the proportion of the community. I know that it’s somewhere around 7 percent African-American, and we have a long way to go,” said Chief Jerman.

“Any time your police force can look like the community, not just African-American — Asian, Hispanic, what happens is people feel connected,” Cassell said.

Both the Chief and Cassell believe there’s still work to be done, by everyone. Cassell said it’s especially true because events in Ferguson can have a big impact on the belief that there’s a racial division.

“We can’t allow instances like this to take us back. We have to move forward, but we have to hold both entities — all the community accountable in making sure we move forward,” Cassell said.

Chief Jerman said his department is also moving forward with another program.

Organizers will kick off a program this school year using mentors at two Cedar Rapids schools. Organizers said the goal was to keep African American students out of the juvenile justice system.

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