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For These Louisvillians, 'Night Out' Doesn't Ease Tension With Police

National Night Out

George Brown crunched on a popsicle, watching police pack up their cars and pull away from Waterfront Park in downtown Louisville.

The officers with the Louisville Metro Police Department's First Division had just finished hosting National Night Out. The nationwide event offers police a chance to meet with residents and, they hope, forge bonds with communities. It's held annually on the first Tuesday in August.

Brown, 71,  and a group of friends visited two such events this year in two different police divisions -- the First and Second divisions.

They're mostly retired and spend their Tuesday evenings riding bicycles around the city. They're a casual bunch. They listen to music and take in the sights as they cruise. One man wore a full brim hat. Brown's bike has an electric motor.

"A little help," he said.

As the police packed their gear Tuesday night, the group lingered in the shade and discussed the merits of the event as a relationship-building tool.

"It's a good show," Brown said.

Brown is well aware of the tension between police and African-American residents.

He's a black man. And he acknowledges the relationship, tested after multiple police shootings of unarmed black men and the recent killings of police officers in Dallas and Louisiana, is more strained than in recent years.

Brown said these types of events — quasi-parties hosted by the police — are a positive step in easing those tensions. But they're not a cure-all.

"It's just a Band-Aid," Brown said.

The police, he said, aren't the problem. It's the lack of jobs, opportunities and resources for young people, specifically young African-Americans, that's led to the current state of distrust and disdain held for police and power in general.
By the first week of July, Louisville's yearly homicide tally reached 55 murders. That's the highest year-to-date total in more than a decade, according to police data. The some 250 shootings reported through the end of June are also outpacing last year by nearly 40 percent. Robberies, assaults and motor vehicle thefts are also spiking this year, police data show.

"There are a lot of things money would take care of, but the money isn't there," Brown said, noting a lack of mental health resources and employment opportunities that have long been absent in neighborhoods where poverty and crime prevail.

These factors, coupled with the lingering stain of racism, have eroded the relationship between people and the police, according to Brown. And the level of frustration alone in his neighborhood – the amount of people who feel oppressed, angry and neglected – creates an environment that makes him fear for his grandchildren's future.

Brown is afraid they’ll have few options when they grow up — or worse, they’ll fall victim to violent crime, which is spiking in Louisville this year.

Jerry Ellis, who also passes Tuesday evenings on a bicycle, said events like National Night Out fall short because they don't reach the small group of people responsible for a bulk of the city’s crime.

“The real people causing the problems do not come to these events,” he said.

Ellis called them “troublemakers” and said they can’t be engaged by events they don’t attend. Instead, he said, they need to be addressed on a more personal level – one on one.

“We have things in common, but we don’t know it,” he said. “Our society could be better if we were more open.”

And when you ask Ellis, 65, how to get people to open up and establish new lines of communication with each other, he just shakes his head, puffs his cigarette and sighs.

“That’s the whole problem.”

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