Naomi Washington-Leapheart

The Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, director for faith-based and interfaith affairs in the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement. — Tribune Photo/Abdul R. Sulayman

What is the future of policing in Philadelphia?

That question will be at the forefront of a public discussion next week with city officials and top police brass.

The discussion will be held virtually from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday. Dubbed Circles of Truth, the discussion is part of the city’s response to the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man, in October.

Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, law enforcement officers, mental and behavioral health experts from the city, and others will participate in the discussion.

The Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, director of the Office of Public Engagement’s Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs for the city, will lead the discussion, along with Randy Duque, deputy director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

Residents and participants are expected to share their experiences and ideas about police reforms and what they believe the future of police in the city should look like. The discussion will also provide a space for healing, discussion and listening. The event also is part of the city’s Pathways to Reform, Transformation and Reconciliation.

The event will be broadcast on the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement’s Facebook page. To participate, register by visiting phila.gov/programs/philadelphia-reforms.

The Philadelphia Tribune spoke with Washington-Leapheart about her thoughts leading up to the first in a series of public discussions on police reform. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What do you think the impact of the fatal police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. has had on the Black and brown communities in Philadelphia?There was already pain, grief, trauma related to interactions with law enforcement, related to the unjust killings of folk not just here in Philadelphia but all over the country. So we know there was a latent grief, a latent pain that didn’t go anywhere.

The killing of Walter Wallace Jr. was in some ways a re-traumatizing. It brought up all of that latent grief, pain, anger, frustration and helplessness that was already present.

Part of what we want to happen at this event is a recognition that our community has been in pain for a long time and there’s lots of frustration to go around. That needs to heard, acknowledged and respected.

What is the state of police-community relations in Philadelphia, particularly for the African-American community?It’s complicated.

There’s a lot of pain, mistrust, skepticism that something positive is possible or that reform, transformation and reconciliation are possible. Members of the Police Department are also part of our community, part of our families, part of our extended networks.

It’s really like: How do we have a breach of trust in a family system, in a community system, and come to one table hoping that we can be reconciled again as one community? That’s the complexity of the relationship.

I don’t want to simplify it to: Everybody hates the police or everybody loves the police. That’s too simple. It’s much more complicated.

The fact of the matter is that Walter Wallace Jr.’s family and community called the police hoping to get help during a time of distress. In some ways, we recognize that the Police Department is still an institution that members of our community rely on. And at the same time, there is a deep skepticism and pain that also have to be acknowledged.

Can police-community relations be repaired in Philadelphia?I think it can. It starts with truth-telling.

That’s part of why we called this event Circles of Truths. We know that there are multiple truths depending on your vantage point. And if we can be radically honest at this juncture and commit to being radically honest as we think about solutions, then reconciliation is possible.

Why should Black and brown Philadelphians have hope that police reforms will benefit them?We need to remember that our city government and Police Department exist to serve the people. And Black and brown communities are the people.

In some ways, we want to set a table whereby people’s voices can be heard and influence what happens in the Police Department.

For far too long, police departments across the nation have operated disconnected from the communities that they have been set up to serve and protect.

On Monday, we’re going to set the table such that the community’s voices get centered and prioritized as we think about solutions.

What could rebuilding police-community trust look like in Philadelphia?It has to start with transparency and accountability on the part of the city and Police Department.

There needs to be a recognition that trust has been breached, that authority has been abused, that people have died unjustly.

The community needs to know that the city and Police Department are to consistently be accountable and in a transparent relationship with the community. It’s going to take some time.

What do you hope will come out of these discussions?I hope that city and Police Department leadership will be seen as full human beings who are members of this community, who are themselves impacted by the grief and trauma of this inflammatory situation. So often, our community members see our city leaders in press conferences or town halls with talking points.

I also hope we hear what we haven’t heard before from community members. One of the questions we are going to ask is: What part of your story has gone unheard?

I’m hoping we can gain the trust of those who attend, such that they want to stay in the conversation. We intend to do some intentional follow-up so that the folks who participate on Monday night will also participate in our future series as well.

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