When City Manager David Vehaun first read over a detailed list of demands sent by a determined activist group to the Rock Hill Police Department, he says he considered it an opportunity.
“My initial reaction was not necessarily to respond, but see the opportunity to inform,” said Vehaun. “It seemed to me, from what I saw, was that we needed to get these guys the information that’s already available.”
Vehaun and Mayor Doug Echols told The Herald on Tuesday that they are committed to keeping communication open for the public to express their opinions about the RHPD or any other city matters. It has been just over a month and a half since the Concerned Black Men of the city of Rock Hill marched downtown to the police department to deliver a list of demands for action within the following 30 days.
The group was initially motivated by a number of high-profile shootings by police on black men nationwide, including those in Minnesota and Louisiana. Concerned Black Men group leaders have since drafted and delivered two letters addressed to police Chief Chris Watts in an attempt to increase communication and understanding between law enforcement and the black community.
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Since then, the group has seen almost every one of its demands either addressed or answered, including receiving department data on use of force and a mandate that all officers wear body cameras during all official police functions.
The City Council OK’d a $1.3 million agreement earlier this month to provide all sworn officers with body-worn cameras, dash cameras and related file storage equipment for police use. Police officials had been researching companies as early as January, and received written quotes from four different vendors between May and July.
The group’s leaders have held private meetings with Echols and Watts, as well as a public forum to explain their public push for police transparency.
Echols said he felt the Concerned Black Men group, led by Rock Hill attorney Brad Rawlinson, was operating in an “information gap.” The police department has made great strides in reaching out to all segments of the community, he said, and have received positive reactions from many citizens.
“There are individuals in the white or the black community who don’t understand about what we’re doing, so people might not know the full scope of what’s happening,” he said. “Communication is the key, I think, to make sure people understand each other better.”
Rawlinson agreed, saying he has never accused the police department of doing anything wrong, but instead pushed for information to become more visible to the public. Echols and Vehaun said Watts was more than happy to release much of the requested information, most of which came from the police department’s 2015 annual report.
“If someone doesn’t have trust with you, to build that trust, you have to be open and honest,” said Rawlinson. “They understand that that’s a positive step, so they deserve congratulations for doing that and doing that with some speed.”
The lone sticking point on the list of demands has been a scheduled monthly public forum, moderated by Watts. Echols and Vehaun say the police already attend close to 80 or 90 public events between neighborhood meetings, “Coffee with a Cop” sitdowns, National Night Out and other opportunities.
Echols and Vehaun said the public should never feel like they can’t reach out to the police for guidance or information.
Echols said the city can and will improve on making sure the public is aware of those meetings. Vehaun said the police department has paid attention to those who make complaints: Interviews with complainants are held off-site to make people feel more comfortable, he said.
“We always need to keep working on all of these things,” said Echols. “You never really get to a finish line, but you have to keep working.”