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Gary mayor says labor relations key to effective policing

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson on Monday told a White House task force labor-management relations are key to building trust between police and the communities they serve.

Freeman-Wilson testified before President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which is gathering information on how police can reduce crime while also strengthening relationships with community stakeholders. The task force is scheduled to present its recommendations to Obama on March 2.

Freeman-Wilson serves as chairwoman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Working Group of Mayors and Police Chiefs, which last month unveiled its recommendations on improving community policing after a four-month review of best practices nationwide. Freeman-Wilson spoke Monday as part of a panel focused on labor and management relations.

"I believe our role as mayors is to provide our police departments with the resources they need to get the job done," Freeman-Wilson said. "Those resources can be money or equipment, or something less tangible, such as creating an atmosphere that makes it easier for our officers to get the job done."

City leaders need to examine policing from the viewpoints of officers and their unions, the departments as a whole, city government and the justice system, she said.

"In Gary, I use my convening power as mayor to involve the whole community," she said. "I address the big picture and work with our chief to relate it to law enforcement."

Freeman-Wilson said she works closely with Police Chief Larry McKinley to improve "policing practices of concern" and to provide a consistent message that officers are "doing a great job."

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"We make it clear that we support our officers and what they do, so long as they follow our established protocols," she said. "But we also make it clear that, when something appears to have been done wrong, we will investigate it and act on the findings of that investigation."

Gary police and firefighters picketed Friday outside Freeman-Wilson's State of the City address, saying they're the lowest-paid in the state, have poor equipment and are losing experienced employees to other departments.

Freeman-Wilson said $8 million raised by a new Lake County income tax was nearly wiped out by a $6 million drop in casino revenues. She said after her address that the city likely has spent more than $2 million on police and fire equipment in the past five years and is constructing a new fire station.

The Working Group of Mayors and Police Chiefs' report says the deaths of several black men during encounters with white police and the retaliatory killings of two New York City officers have brought issues of race, class, prejudice, poverty and inequality to the forefront. The recommendations are grouped into six topics: building police-community trust, improving police department practices, ensuring timely and accurate communications, conducting independent investigations, addressing racial and economic disparities and providing national leadership.

Community policing is a philosophy, not a program, the report says.

"Improving police-community relations is not solely a law enforcement responsibility," Freeman-Wilson said. "The entire community — business, the not-for-profit community, civic and social organizations, the faith community, police and government at all levels — must be involved to ensure no just public safety, but justice and, equally important, a sense of justice in the community."

The full report on the Working Group of Mayors and Police Chiefs' recommendations is available at www.usmayors.org.

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