Bristol Borough Police Chief Steve Henry joined about 50 locals in a Dialogue on Race at the Bristol Hope Church on Tuesday evening.
The conversation, one of a handful held by the Langhorne-based Peace Center throughout Bucks this year, centered on police-community relations. In September, the Peace Center held a similar dialogue in Newtown, with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the national anthem as the starting point.
This time, the conversation began with whether locals trust or distrust the police.
The group discussion moved through positive experiences with local police departments to concerns about how different races are viewed by police to how relations between communities and their local police departments can improve.
“I have two sons. One son is white, one son is black. I have to teach them to have different interactions with police officers,” said Adam Grossman of Langhorne. “Even if it’s 1 percent of the cops that are bad cops, 99 percent are protecting them.”
Grossman spoke about resistance to body cameras, and cases of cover-ups and racism across the country that have been covered in the national media.
“The only thing I’ve heard (from police) is, ‘Well, we’re human and we’re being hunted,’ ” Grossman said. “I haven’t heard any discussion on what is going to change in the culture of policing.”
These and similar topics were posed to Henry, who gave his perspective on the situation.
“You have to understand that there is a mindset in the United States now that is changing the dynamic of these interactions. It’s polarizing it worse on both sides,” Henry said. “I have my philosophy and I implement it here and that’s the best that I can do.”
“Think of the enormity of responsibility put on these police officers,” he continued. “It’s the toughest job on the planet. You’re policing a free society.”
Most present agreed that the national portrayal of police-community relations do align with police in Lower Bucks, but the national conversation may leak in.
Kyle Serfass, a Levittown resident, spoke about how being in a mixed-race relationship opened his eyes to some of the fear and anxiety people of color may face during interactions with law enforcement.
“These people, black people in particular, didn’t just come together and delude themselves that these issues are real,” Serfass said. “This area could be a particular area where things are great … but the national issues, the national conversation bleeds into these areas.”
Jill Czajkowski of Croydon spoke about times where she needed police assistance and felt protected and secure thanks to local officers. She also mentioned that she was raised to respect authority and go to the police if she had an issue.
But in interactions with coworkers, she found that not everybody feels this way. In her view, it’s not just about police-community relations, but deeper societal issues.
“The issue is so much bigger than the police and black teenagers,” she said. “That’s why I’m here tonight. I feel horrible that there are people living in fear, and I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
This is a sentiment that Henry echoed later, in saying police departments across the country are a part of the larger issue of race relations in America.
“Race relations is really where the conversation has to start,” he said. “That true conversation has to start way before us.”
Still, the group rounded out the dialogue by discussing ways that community relations with police can improve.
One participant brought up connecting with the community via social media, and mentioned the Upper Makefield Police Department Facebook page as one that does a good job with that. Others mentioned more coffee-with-a-cop events would help. Serfass, a substitute high school teacher, said that police holding assemblies where they show students the proper way to interact with law enforcement, much the way they already do with drugs and drunk driving, would be effective.
Despite the differences expressed throughout the night, one sentiment from Bensalem resident Lauren Swann seemed to be true for everyone.
“There’s more work to be done here,” she said. ••