‘I’m not here to spy on you, surveille you, or police you; I am here to walk with you’

In downtown Fort Wayne on Friday night, what started as a nonviolent protest against the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis divulged into a chaotic scene that will go down in local history.

When protesters blocked traffic on Clinton Street in front of the Allen County Courthouse, police in riot gear launched tear gas into the crowd in an effort to clear the street.

A similar scenario played out again on Saturday.

But imagine what could have happened if things had played out differently.

In Mount Pleasant, Michigan, a city of about 28,000 residents, a spontaneous protest against Floyd’s death on Sunday started and ended nonviolently—in a large part, due to the police department’s active collaboration with protesters and years of ongoing support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Police not only closed down two of the city’s main artery’s for protesters to demonstrate last weekend—they actually suggested it.

When Mt. Pleasant Director of Public Safety Paul Lauria first heard about the impending protest on social media, he directed one of his sergeants to reach out to the woman leading it. Police Chief Paul Lauria

“I had my sergeant reach out to her, and ask, ‘How can we help?’” Lauria explains. “We said, ‘If helping is staying away, then guess what, we’re going to stay away until we’re called, and then based on what the call is, we’ll respond.’”

Instead, the protesters shared their plans with police, saying that they wanted to walk along the sidewalk for nearly three miles into downtown Mt. Pleasant before laying face-down and chanting “I can’t breathe” for nine minutes, in remembrance of Floyd.

But Lauria had a better idea.

“I said, ‘How about we take up both lanes of northbound traffic on the main artery through our city, and we make Mt. Pleasant stop for a brief moment to see what we’re doing?” Lauria says. “So that’s what we did.”

Marching side-by-side, protesters and police took over Mt. Pleasant on Sunday afternoon, making themselves a model to follow for nonviolent protests.

Similar collaborations between protesters and police played out in other cities, like Camden, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan, as well, notes Former President Barack Obama in a viral Medium post.

“The waves of protests across the country represent a genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States,” Obama writes. “The overwhelming majority of participants have been peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring. They deserve our respect and support, not condemnation—something that police in cities like Camden and Flint have commendably understood.”

Now, you can add Mt. Pleasant to the list. But responding effectively on the day of a protest starts long before the protest begins, Lauria says.

The nonviolent demonstration and collaboration that took place in Mt. Pleasant last weekend is the result of years of hard work by the police department in building genuine, action-based relationships with their community. And if America’s smallest cities are where real change begins, then the rest of the U.S. should heed a lesson from Lauria’s department.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Lauria to learn more about the work his police department is doing to build trust-based relationships with their community, to support the Black Lives Matter movement, and to start the long, arduous work of reforming law enforcement in the U.S.

Gil Melvin, Rondo Sanders and Steven Green march toward downtown Mount Pleasant during an event to protest the death of George Floyd and social injustice June 1 on Mission Street in Mount Pleasant, MI.


IFW: Your city had a powerful, yet nonviolent protest on Sunday. Tell us how that happened.

PL: When my officers first learned about the protest on social media, we reached out to the organizers, and then my patrol sergeant and I went down to the protesters beforehand and talked. We said, “Hey, look, we’ll let you do anything as long as it stays peaceful, so tell me what you want this to look like.”

The woman leading the protest, Grace, said, “We want to walk down the sidewalk to the town center.” I said, “Ok, that’s fine, but there are going to be way too many people here to walk down the sidewalk unless you can get every person in row like ducks. How about we take up both lanes of northbound traffic on the main artery through our city, and we make Mt. Pleasant stop for a brief moment to see what we’re doing? How about that?”

She was like, “Yeah, I think that’s what we should do,” and I said, “We’ll make it happen.”

So that’s what we did. We did a three-mile walk down the main artery of our city into the town center, and after the protest, we shut down the Southbound lanes, and we completed the journey back.

The protesters planned it all; we just spruced it up a little bit.


IFW: Tell us more about how you encouraged a nonviolent environment while allowing citizens to display their frustration with the law enforcement system.

PL:
First of all, there’s a little bit of history that you have to take into consideration. If there are any sort of recent or ongoing racial issues that are fresh or unsettled in your city, those have to be taken into consideration.

What I mean by that is: If your community is already tense because of unsettled issues, then I liken these protests to a stick of dynamite. The red part of the dynamite is the issues. All they need now is a fuse and something to light it, and then it goes boom. So if you have that red part of the dynamite already, these protests can be the fuse, and then you can have the next part of the fuse, which is the biggest: The lighting.

So that’s where I’m going to start. Now, I’m not saying that our community hasn’t had any incidents or racial tension. I’m not saying we’re a perfect community and police department, but we have worked very hard, as a police department, to be extremely open with our local diversity groups, and that includes Black Lives Matter.

As the Mt. Pleasant Police Department and City, we’ve been very open about complaints against our officers, what they are, and how they were handled. We’ve been very open on our Implicit Bias training, Diversity training, Immigration, and Use of Force training—all those sensitive issues that impact the human emotions, so-to-speak. We’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, and it’s still a work in progress.

Over the years, we have built up some level of trust with our community. I wouldn’t say our work is complete; it’s never finished. But I liken it to a garden. If you want a good garden year after year, you can’t just weed it in the spring, and say, “Ok, I’m done now,” and expect to have a good crop. You’ve got to weed it, you’ve got to water it, you’ve got to sometimes trim the flowers. It’s just constant, constant maintenance.

When it comes to engaging with the community as a police department, you can’t do it once either. You can’t make one phone call, and say, “Hey, anything you need in the future, just call me.” That doesn’t work. It’s a garden. If you want to have a nice garden, you better keep taking care of it. It’s ongoing work.

To maintain our relationships with our community, I go to monthly meetings; I interact with diversity groups, like Black Lives Matter, on a monthly basis, and so when incidences like these protests come up, we already have that relationship established.

Protestors start their march to protest the death of George Floyd and social injustice June 1 outside Charles V. Park Library in Mount Pleasant, MI.

IFW: As a police officer, attending a protest against police violence can be uncomfortable. How did you prepare your officers for the situation?

PL:
When things like what happened to George Floyd in Minnesota happen, as a police chief, I don’t make excuses for it. I don’t try to justify excuses for that behavior because quite frankly, there is no excuse. There’s just no excuse.

So when these protests happen, and people yell, pardon my language, “F*** the police” or “Police ar f***in pigs,” and all that. That’s coming from people who I call lighters, and they want to light the fuse. And so if you try to engage with them and address them at that time, you’re dealing with three very powerful human emotions: Anger, sadness, and frustration. So in that moment, to try to address those statements or to change their minds is pointless.

What I told our officers on the day of the protests is, “Our actions speak louder than our words today.” That means: As the police, when you hear things you don’t agree with, a protest is not the day to try to defend your position. It is not the day to try to say, “We’re not like that; we’re different.” What a protest is for is letting people get some of that frustration and anger out. Let them be heard, and whatever that is, we need to let them know that we’re here to accommodate everything that is peaceful up until the point it becomes violent or destructive. And that means, the protesters get to choose, as a group, if it goes that way.

I also told the protest organizers before the event: “I’m not here to spy on you, surveille you, or police you. I am here to walk with you because what happened isn’t right, and my officers are here as long as this stays peaceful to walk with you to help you get your message across to the nation, to the community, and we can do everything possible to do that as long as it stays peaceful. If it doesn’t stay peaceful, we’ll have to take a different approach, but that isn’t a threat. If you want to be out here all night, and lay in the middle of the road, we will shut down traffic until you want to get up and go home.”

That’s the philosophy we have taken.

Trokon Jayqua, left, and Tim Crosby, both of Mount Pleasant, carry equipment to a police officer’s vehicle before an event to protest the death of George Floyd.

IFW: How are you personally processing the murder of George Floyd, as a police officer?

PL:
The situation is outrageous. If anybody in their right mind thinks that what happened to George Floyd was all right, or was justified, or says, “Oh, it just happens,” that is not OK. It’s happened one too many times now, and you know what? Those of us in law enforcement want to be known for it in the good times. Well, guess what? We can’t separate ourselves from it when there are bad times either because doing that makes you sound like you’re in denial, and quite honestly, I don’t try to sit there and say, “Yeah, but something like that has never happened here in Mt. Pleasant.” I don’t do that; I just say, “I know why you are speaking the way you’re speaking. I get why you’re upset, so please vent all you want.”

That’s the other frustrating thing for me about this Minneapolis situation. There were four officers there. Four. And you have one suspect. The suspect is handcuffed, and you have one officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes.

You mean to tell me that between the four officers, and let’s just say it was silent there, take out all the background noise. You mean to tell me that not one of them had a thought come across one of their minds that entered out of their mouths to say, “That’s enough, man. We’ve gotta get that guy up.”

Then on top of that, you have people yelling it over and over and over again, witnesses and bystanders, and it still doesn’t cross your mind? That’s telling me you’re not in touch with people. You have become desensitized to people—to common decency.

Imagine that. Imagine that. How do you defend that? How do you tell people who saw that video, they can't yell, they can't say, “F*** the police.”

You can’t. What you can do as a police chief right now is provide every avenue you can to keep people safe as they protest, and let them express their anger and frustration in the most peaceful way possible. That’s what you can do. Other than that, keep your mouth shut because the protest isn’t the day to change people's minds about police.

Let your action speak; not your mouth.

Protestors lie on the ground and chant, “I can’t breathe,” for nine minutes while others document during an event to protest the death of George Floyd outside the Isabella County Sheriff’s Office in Mount Pleasant, MI.

IFW: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into public safety.

PL:
I’ve been here in Mt. Pleasant for 23 years. I’m originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan. My dad was a district court judge there, and my mom was a legal secretary. That’s how the foundation of public service in our family began. I have three brothers who are all police officers in Michigan, and I am the fourth. So four out of five of us are in law enforcement. I came here in 1997, as a patrolman, and I’ve been very fortunate to eventually become the police chief.

IFW: Was there a time in the past when you were less understanding of the complexities of law enforcement? If so, what changed you?

PL:
Early in my career, I remember talking to a former police chief about one of our officers involved in a shooting that happened, where a guy—I think he was dealing drugs—ended up getting shot and killed by an officer, while the officer was defending himself at a crime scene.

The court ruled it a justified shooting, but I remembered the victim’s family getting so upset with the police, and at the time, I didn’t understand it. The officer was defending himself. But my police chief looked at me, and he said, “That family just lost a loved one. How would you expect them to respond, no matter what the circumstances are?”

When he said that, I didn’t agree with it. I’m 46 now, and it wasn’t until my late 30s that I realized that when you develop empathy and you give people—even people who commit crimes—respect, knowing that they are loved and cared about just as much as the next person, it goes a long, long way. Because the world is in shades of gray. It isn’t black and white.

IFW: You’ve been Police Chief of Mt. Pleasant for about three years now. What has this new role taught you?

PL:
I’m still fairly new, and I have a lot to learn. But one thing I’m learning is this: You might think that because there have been no “racial incidents” or even citizen complaints of racism in your community, that’s because there are none, and your officers are doing everything right.

Well, what does it hurt, even if there are none of those incidences, to open up and build a relationship with diverse groups—with the people in your community. You need to embrace diversity rather than ignore it, or think that everything is OK just because nothing has technically happened.

During that first year, I realized that just because there haven't been any problems here from my perspective, that doesn’t mean that everybody is comfortable here.

People carry baggage with them, and they have perceptions of police based on their previous experiences. No matter how big or small your community is, I don’t know of any community that stays the same forever—that never has anybody with a different viewpoint move into it.

In Mt. Pleasant, we have a large, Division I university, Central Michigan University, and we have people from all over the U.S. and the world living here. All of these people have different views of law enforcement when they come to Mt. Pleasant.

Whether they’re from Detroit, or Chicago, or Cleveland, or Indianapolis, they’re bringing a different perspective of the police with them. And that perspective may not be my fault, but it’s my responsibility to address.

I took that for granted at first. But about a year into my promotion, I realized I needed to develop strong relationships with our community’s diversity and minority groups.

Organizer Steven Green throws a vest to John Campbell, who volunteered as a peace moderator for an event to protest the death of George Floyd and social injustice June 1 outside the Bovee University Center in Mount Pleasant, MI.

IFW: How did those groups respond when you reached out to them?

PL:
It almost felt like a chess match at first, where I would play a card, and they would play a card, and it was like we were both holding our cards close to our chests.

It was a little uncomfortable. But I realized that being uncomfortable in this situation is normal, and I knew that if I was just telling them everything that we were doing as police, but if I wasn’t including them in the process, then it was nothing but lip service. So I let my actions speak louder than my words.

For example, when we had our Use of Force training for police officers, I invited people from these groups to see our training and policy. I just said: “Our training is happening this week. Feel free to come to it. Do you want to see our Implicit Bias training, too? You’re welcome to come to it.”

I have provided that outlet, and I am very thankful for those groups, too, because they have helped me grow and recognize that the world is in shades of gray. It isn’t black and white, and just because you may have committed a crime doesn't mean you’re any less human than the next person.

IFW: Have the groups you’ve worked with ever opened your eyes to an issue in Mt. Pleasant?

PL:
I send policies to the groups for them to give me advice, and one incident that stands out is that they told me: “You know, we don’t like batons,” those expanding sticks that officers carry on them.

When they said that, I took them seriously, and I looked into it. It turns out, we’ve been carrying batons in Mt. Pleasant since 1997, and you know how many times we’ve ever used them on a person between 1997-2018? Once.

Can you even imagine in today’s day and age, where everybody has a camera outside their business or house—no matter what the circumstance is—seeing someone get beat with a club? Isn’t that a little barbaric?

Looking at the statistics and the situation, we decided, you know what, we really don’t need these batons—this barbaric method of clubbing and hitting someone with a metal object. We don’t need these things. So I collected all of them in 2018, and we got rid of them.

That’s what’s important about working with your community and asking people for feedback. It can’t just be lip service. If you’re going to engage, you better be genuine. You better be willing to do the things you say you’re going to do, and you better back up all of that with action.

IFW: Looking to the future of law enforcement in the U.S., what is some advice you would give to other officers to improve the system?

PL:
I certainly don’t profess to have all the answers, but my biggest advice is this: Challenge yourself not to think situations are black and white, right and wrong. The majority of the world is shades of gray.

Also, if you want to avoid a whole bunch of work on the back end, you better invest a hell of a lot of time on the front end doing what’s right. You’ve got to be willing to do the hard work, and along the way admit your mistakes—whether it’s ones that you’ve made personally or ones your officers have made. Trying to justify a bad decision only digs a hole deeper. I’m not afraid to say, “My officer made a mistake.”

Unfortunately, we signed up to be law enforcement officers, and every day is different. Every day is a challenge, but this is what you signed up for. You better have a commitment to it.

As for the future of law enforcement, I don’t understand why we, as officers, can’t learn from our mistakes collectively. It’s very frustrating to me, and quite frankly, I'm tired of it. I'm tired of justifying or trying to defend some other police department’s actions, and I'm tired of answering for police departments that aren’t mine. We all have to start holding each other accountable, and what I mean by that is having accountability in departments from the lowest level police officers to the highest level commanders and all the way up to the chief of police.

If I’m doing something wrong, I tell my people, “Take me aside, and stop me.” I expect you to help me when I'm not at my best. We all make mistakes. We all regret things we do, things we say, and if we have people who are looking out for the best interests of us and our community, we’ll all be a lot better served.

IFW: Looking back on Sunday’s protest, what stands out to you about the experience?

PL:
I’m very proud of my department. but I'm more proud of our demonstrators. As police officers, we are expected to serve the public in the way that we did. I am more proud of every single one of the attendees in how they treated us and how they conducted themselves. If you want a story that’s the story. I know the violence, the destruction is what makes headlines, but I challenged our city early on in Mt. Pleasant. I said: “Do we want to be the example or the model? I want to be the model, so let’s be the model,” and that’s what happened.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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