By Jason Dawkins
The recent events in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland have dominated the national conversation, giving us a powerful opportunity as a country to grapple with issues of race and criminal justice in ways that I've never before witnessed.
As a recently elected member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, and a lifelong resident of the Frankford neighborhood of Philadelphia, I'm compelled to consider these developments on a local level, but also to explore their implications for the commonwealth.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has been appointed by President Obama to cochair a task force on 21st-century policing that will make recommendations on how to bring police departments closer to the communities they serve. So as the head of our city's Police Department works with colleagues from around the United States to look for a way forward, I find myself asking: What can we do here in Pennsylvania to begin bridging the community-police divide?
It's clear to me that two things are necessary to make the task force a success.
First, those of us who have the honor of serving in government must take action to craft bold structural reforms to our criminal justice system. I join my soon-to-be colleagues in the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus in their push for legislation limiting the use of choke holds by police, as well as outfitting our police departments with body cameras. Criticism of the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases also demonstrates the need to delve into our judicial processes to ensure that we are following best practices and avoiding conflicts of interest.
Second, we need to realize that progress on these issues requires change not just from the government, but also within our communities. Engaged and informed citizens will be the true strength behind any reforms. This process begins with self-reflection. A notable artist once said, "I'm starting with the man in the mirror," and we must hold ourselves accountable first before we can demand such from others.
After our own reflections, we need to make sure that neighborhoods across Pennsylvania are organized and connected. We need to encourage folks to join local community organizations, attend police department public meetings, participate in neighborhood cleanups, and build the networks of support that empower communities in good times and bad.
I've spent years working to build and support organizations that will serve as social assets to their communities. All of the different organizations in a neighborhood have a role to play in making our communities connected and safe, whether it's the local business association, a park or library support group, or the police district advisory council.
There is plenty of work to be done if we want to bridge divides, both in the halls of government and in our neighborhoods' streets, and the time to begin that process is now.