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Some Louisville Police Feel Tension, But Remain Hopeful

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Louisville Metro Police Officer William Garrett III didn't become a cop for the cookouts. Which is good, because barbecue invites are a rarity during the day shift patrol.

Instead, the four-year veteran in the department's Fourth Division spends most of his shift responding to tense situations involving some people that see his badge as the mark of the enemy.

That's a troubling truth for Garrett. He said the community is the police department's biggest asset.

"We can't do our job without the community," he said.

Yet in recent months, the relationship between police and communities has become strained. Fatal police shootings of African American men in cities across the country and attacks on police in places like Dallas and Baton Rouge have intensified the divide between people and police.

Garrett and other officers in the city's Fourth Division can feel the tensions on their own beat.

Officer Aaron Thornton said simply starting a conversation with someone can spark unrest.

"Just give us a chance," he said.

And Officer Tate Mason said just walking in to a gas station can bring judgement and scornful stares.

"It's tough, we really have to remind ourselves that 99 percent of the community support us," he said.

The officers joined about a hundred other people Sunday at Jefferson Square Park in downtown Louisville for an event to show that support for law enforcement. Faith leaders led prayers and others gave testimony about why people should be encouraged by the work of police officers.

State Rep. Kevin Bratcher used the opportunity to talk about a bill he recently filed that would make it a hate crime to target police, firefighters or emergency personnel in Kentucky.

The House bill would make public safety workers a protected class under hate-crime law.

Bratcher, a Republican from Louisville, said he received "some really nasty Twitters and Facebook comments and home phone calls" from people opposed to the bill, which was originally called "Blue Lives Matter" legislation.

"The name of it is not 'Blue Lives Matter,'" he said Sunday. "I just want to help police and the first responders."

The event organizer, Jeff Klusmeier, repeated a call made earlier this month by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer that showing support for police and equal treatment of residents is not mutually exclusive -- that now is not the time to pick sides.

"You can't be so quick to judge," he said.

The officers attending the event echoed that.

Mason said while police officers "naturally" back up other officers facing media scrutiny, they're not immune to casting judgement based on facts, rather than affiliation.

"We really try to remain neutral and not pick sides," he said.

He said one way to help repair the fractured relationship between police and communities is to "keep the conversation going."

He said "we're at a very crucial point" and pinning discussions about improving the bond between people and police on tragic events involving police officers can stymie the momentum of progress.

Yet he has hope that the relationship will improve. So does Officer Garrett.

He said he became a police officer because he loves people and he wants to help people, regardless of their race, the class or their struggle.

"It shouldn't be white versus black, or black versus blue," Garrett said. "Let's help build each other up, not tear each other down."

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.