Our View: Big problems require a path to empathy

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(Photo/Chris Teale)

Understanding is a necessary component of the journey to empathy.

This truth was beautifully illustrated in a front-page story in Sunday’s Washington Post about the godson of former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke. Raised in a cocoon of white supremacism, the young man parroted the bigotry of his elders until he went to college, actually met people of different faiths and nationalities, and ultimately completely renounced his past.

Anyone paying attention knows that our country is in a terrible epoch of mistrust and violence between police and the black community. While there are many, complicated reasons for this situation, a lack of understanding and empathy by some on both sides has contributed to feelings of fear and anger and the violence that has rocked our country the past two years.

Regardless of what has happened in both the recent and distant past, police departments and the communities they serve must work together to resolve the impasse that currently exists. Steps forward will by necessity include measures that increase understanding and trust.

In Alexandria, the relationship between our police department and the community has generally been good. One reason for this is the department-wide emphasis placed on community policing, spearheaded by recently retired Police Chief Earl Cook.

In community policing, officers spend more time out in neighborhoods, getting to know residents — particularly those in traditionally higher crime areas. The rapport officers build with individuals helps increase trust, and it helps with solving crimes that occur in those neighborhoods.

Alexandria’s preeminence in this area was recently affirmed when Officer Bennie Evans was chosen as one of just 12 police officers nationwide to win the U.S. Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Community Policing.

Evans has focused on getting to know Alexandria’s homeless population and now serves as the city’s homeless outreach liaison. He doesn’t just talk with those living on the streets, but also distributes donated clothing and links them to city services.

Evans also participates in Alexandria’s crisis intervention team, which helps during incidents involving people with mental illness or substance abuse issues. This approach has enabled some people who need help to enter psychiatric or rehab facilities rather than go to jail.

City Councilor John Chapman is another city leader who is trying to increase understanding, albeit in a different way. Chapman has started a tour company that educates participants about the history of Alexandria’s black community, from slavery through the civil rights movement. His tour takes groups to numerous sites associated with the slave trade and also tells the largely unknown stories of abolitionists and escaped slaves.

Chapman’s endeavor is impressive, as he put in the time re- searching the history of these sites and developing his tour while serving on city council. By telling the story of slavery and civil rights in Alexandria, Chapman has not only enhanced an already robust tour scene: he is advancing the cause of understanding. Better understanding the past of Alexandria’s black community helps us see how that past informs present conditions.

When problems are big and seem to be getting worse, standing still is really losing ground. Sometimes small, constructive steps can lead to significant gains. Chapman’s black history tours and Officer Evans’ community policing efforts are definitely steps in the right direction, as they aim for understanding and ultimately empathy. Kudos to both men.

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