(Nov 21, 2018) Catherine Read interviews Shirley Ginwright, Co-Chair of the Fairfax Communities of Trust Committee (COTC). The committee was established in December of 2014, following the tragic death of Michael Brown and the ensuing riots and civil unrest that emerged in Ferguson, Missouri. For the past 4 years, this committee has successfully brought together local law enforcement and emergency response agencies so that they can effectively work together and have trust between agencies, as well as build community trust with law enforcement.
When Ginwright first approached Fairfax County officials after the Ferguson riots, she posed the question of “what do we have in place to PREVENT a similar situation from happening right here in Fairfax County?” After discovering that there really was nothing in place, Chairman of the Board Sharon Bulova established the Communities of Trust Committee, and appointed Ginwright the chair. Representatives from every law enforcement agency, including local police, the sheriff’s office, state police, the FBI, the Justice Department, emergency response and school resource officers were brought together under this effort.
The committee holds lengthy discussions and shares information and best practices. They discovered that many of their agencies were doing the same thing, but were unaware of what their counterparts were doing, and how they were doing it. Now that relationships are built between agencies, they are more likely to collaborate and help one another in challenging situations. The exercise of bringing these groups together fostered understanding and trust, as well as a forum of how to approach the larger issue of how to address lack of trust with law enforcement. They have worked hard over the past 4 years to come up with concrete ways to bring officers into the community and demonstrate that the police are there to keep residents safe and protect them from threats.
One of the programs that emerged from the COTC is the Police At Lunch (PAL) program, born in the Mt. Vernon district. This program brings officers into the school lunchrooms to help kids open containers of milk and have lunch with the kids. The programming is designed to make the officers accessible, and show children that officers are safe and trustworthy.
The COTC has been able to make a big impact relative to how School Resource Officers integrate into the disciplinary system in the middle and high schools throughout Fairfax County. Data indicates that students of color and students with disabilities were disproportionately affected by being brought into the juvenile justice system by SRO’s in certain schools throughout the county. The COTC worked collaboratively with FCPS and local law enforcement to focus the role of the SRO on safety, and allow school administrators to deal with discipline for students regarding non-violent offenses. This has kept many more children in school and out of detention centers. The signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has been so successful that it has become a model that it is now being replicated in other school districts, as well as on the state level.
The COTC has also been instrumental in helping parents better understand their rights, if and when their child is detained by an officer or disciplined during the school day. The committee has hosted 4 forums designed for parents, so that they understand what the process should be if their child is detained. The committee has created a flowchart and videos for parents so that they can understand the various phases of the disciplinary process in an effort to help increase transparency.
The committee has also weighed in on issues such immigration and diversity in the police force. The COTC has created videos to help parents and kids understand their rights if a parent is picked up or detained while a child is in school. It is called the “know your rights video” and can be found on their website. They have also worked collaboratively with citizen groups to advocate for diversity and better minority representation on the local police force. Representation matters, and helps to build trust with minority communities.
Ginwright is excited about the new initiatives that the committee is taking on, such as working with the police force on policies surrounding body cameras. The committee meets every Thursday at the Fairfax Government Center, and welcomes guests to join them for their meetings. She also notes that they are available to visit groups for presentations in the community. More information can be found on the website.