Crowded room for South Bend police-community forum

Around 300 people fill the Kroc Center chapel for a police-community forum.
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Hundreds of men and women gathered this evening to share their concerns with South Bend police and city leaders.

The mayor says he'd rather have the conversation than not have it.

It was another chance for a back and forth between police officers and neighbors to find common ground and share ways to make the neighborhood safer.

Before the doors at the South Bend Kroc Center opened, protestors gathered to add a few more names to their list.

“We have over 300 signatures at this point,” pastor Mario Sims said.

But as people filed in for Thursday night's forum, Kroc Center workers had to roll out nearly 300 chairs as the room neared capacity.

“To see this many people and a broad, diverse mix of people to talk about this issue is a positive sign for our community,” mayor Pete Buttigieg said.

“There's a lack of trust,” Notre Dame professor Dr. Richard Pierce said.

More than a half dozen panelists, including police officers and black men and women shared insights on how to improve relations between officers and those they protect and serve.

“Everybody now has cameras, I don't care where you're at. There's going to be cameras and it's going to affect how law enforcement and the public treats each other,” South Bend police captain Darryl Boykins said.

“Unless you couple training with training with structural change,” Dr. Pierce said.

Advocates argue that diversity in the police force isn't enough. Many argue that much of the black community fears and resents the police and wants more transparency.

“The want and the need to get out what really happened. But we have to protect the people who are in handcuffs,” South Bend police chief Scott Ruszkowski said.

“And no matter how much you try and convince them, most of the time, they're not going to change their opinion. They're not going to agree with you. All you can do is inform and be honest,” South Bend Adams High School senior Billy Horton said.

Despite the moderator's efforts, an open dialogue with audience questions proved difficult as some emotions boiled over.

“It would be even worse if we weren't facing these issues. That's part of what the job is, is to sometimes look directly into the heartbreak and try to do something about it,” mayor Buttigieg said.

The group protesting is calling for officer Aaron Knepper to be fired and chief Ruszkowski to resign.

Knepper was involved in an incident where advocates say Deshawn Franklin was mistakenly beaten and tased.

He was also the officer Notre Dame cornerback Devin Butler allegedly assaulted last month outside an off campus bar.

While that question was raised, chief Ruszkowski says the case is in federal court.

So far, he says the department isn't considering firing or suspending officer Knepper.

Mayor Buttigieg says he hopes to host another community forum, but doesn't know how soon that'll happen.

He says people with concerns can attend next week's mayor's night out.

South Bend police will host another session of "Cops, Coffee and Conversations" at Cops and Donuts: Dainty Maid Precinct on Saturday, October 1st.