By Kaden Quinn/Clarion Reporter
JEFFERSON CITY – Lincoln University’s Dr. Darius Watson recently organized a Jefferson City town hall to help establish a better relationship between the community, public safety and policing. Hosted in LU’s Richardson Auditorium as a virtual event, the town hall was co-sponsored by KRCG and the News Tribune.
Watson states that this event had been in development for close to a year and was created before the coronavirus pandemic. With the backing of local media the focus was to use virtual platforms provided by all three outlets so the community could have a more interactive role within the town hall.
While the virtual aspect of the event played a prominent role, it was used very traditionally in gathering community opinions. Watson wanted the public to know that although this event has many familiar aspects, it would also differ significantly.
“In the same ways we will solicit public input, we’ll have community representatives on the stage discussing their own perspectives and answering their questions from the community so that traditional town hall framework will be there,” Watson said. “What’s often missing from a town tall however is follow-through – the ability to translate what you get from the community out of that town into practical initiatives, projects, and laws.”
According to Watson, the second component of this town hall is a stakeholders meeting in the spring. Between the event and the meeting, the input from the October town hall will be used to create an agenda upon which stakeholders will be able to operate.
“They’re not just fielding these general perspectives, emotions, and issues,” Watson said. “They will have concrete areas that the community, through the town hall, has identified as those they want most addressed.”
In that way, the professor hopes to create a more practical mechanism for government responsiveness to public needs. The event has received much support as well as a sponsorship from the highest levels of state government.
“Just about every major actor within the Jefferson City community, in particular, is on board,” said Watson. “From police to the mayor’s office to the public school system. Obviously, Lincoln University is one of the primary sponsors. I am quite excited about the potential that this has and we’ve really gone out of our way to promote this as apolitical. It is just about the community and everyone has been willing to get on board with that message.”
Overall, the event was considered to have a solid turnout. Across all three platforms, the town hall was estimated to have over 500 viewers and fielded about 60 questions from participants. They also arranged both the panelists and then the questions they received from the community in a way that would cover a variety of subtopics or areas within public safety.
The specific topics that were discussed were issues such as the role and training effectiveness of school resource officers, issues regarding youth at risk, and the development of mental health crisis centers. The idea of implementing a kind of intervention or de-escalation short of entering juveniles into the system was also discussed.
“We talked about a different approach for crisis intervention and de-escalation with regards to domestic abuse cases and trying to create more social understanding among law enforcement as to other aspects beyond just enforcing the law,” Watson said. “Trying to understand on a deeper level of what’s going and what’s driving the issues.
The role of gun laws and gun violence were brought up, as well as some questions regarding the use of body cameras by police in Jefferson City. There were many different topics touched upon and discussed by the community; however, the topic of the community’s dynamic with police would become the focus of the event.
“I think in many ways it boiled down to the relationship between law enforcement and Jefferson City,” Watson said. “It might play out as the school resource officer or it might play out in terms of how we can create stronger and more effective neighborhood watches. Some of it was more direct in terms of actual policing tactics. Review and oversight of the police and there were also discussions of race and policing because obviously, that’s a critical issue.”
Watson believes that the foundation for real progress was made during this town hall. With the event concluded it is now his role to now breakdown details of the town hall into an executive summary and then distribute that to the potential stakeholders that are identified through its topics.
“That’s how we’re using what the community gave us in the responses we got from the panelists and that’s when we’re going to see the real impact,” Watson said. “Even if we are only able to practically address one of these issues, we would have to consider it a success. But if we’re able to come up with two or three really solid initiatives that are backed by the majority of the community and that is fundamentally the result of the community itself saying this is what we want – that’s what you call democracy.”