Lakewood police engage residents in open dialogue Thursday
Rage and bloodshed that have scraped Baton Rouge and Dallas raw - to say nothing of towns across the US where tensions simmer undetected - prompts a community dialogue Thursday night in Lakewood.
Police Chief Rob Lawson swings open the doors of the Municipal Building for residents from all corners of the community at 7 PM, seeing open communication as the welcome alternative to hidden hostility.
No vibrations on the streets lead him to think that the need is dire, Lawson said. His goal is to hear concerns and develop solutions, much as he and his department did in the aftermath of Ferguson, Missouri.
"We invited community members and leaders, especially minority members, to talk about how they felt things were in Lakewood," Lawson recalled. "A lot of positive comments - there were some negative, too - and we took those comments to heart."
"This is just a follow-up," Lawson said, "to give people a chance to express their opinions, to vent if they want to, sort of a catharsis. We don't want tensions and anger that are ultimately manifested in violence."
At the post-Ferguson rally, he recalled, about a dozen people spoke up. "Most were complimentary. One person spoke negatively and left immediately afterward. I wasn't able to look in-depth into the complaints."
Thursday night, Lawson said, complaints involving officers will be treated with utmost seriousness, and will be forwarded to the department's Office of Professional Standards for investigation. Substantiated complaints will be met with corrective action, he said.
Lakewood bears its own scars in the death of Police Officer Christopher Matlosz. shot through the window of his squad car in January 2011. Before and since that incident, Lawson has maintained frequent community contact.
"I send group e-mails, almost on a weekly basis, to various community leaders, religious leaders, minority leaders. I try to address the needs of the community, not just police-related, but social issues as well."
"I try to stay in close contact with all minority groups," Lawson said. He often turns to pastors to extend his outreach, counting about a dozen in the township's Latino neighborhoods, and a considerable number in Black congregations.
Earlier in July, Lawson said, "I was at one of the largest African-American churches in Lakewood, talking to parishioners there for well over an hour about their concerns. They had many, many questions for me, and I took the time to answer."
Lawson's travels through town have given Lawson the unmistakable impression that Lakewood, left to its own devices, is fine. It's influence from elsewhere that raises red flags for him.
"That's my worst fear," he confided. "If something was to happen in Lakewood, we would address it quickly, but you always worry about outside agitators coming in to try to stir things up. They stir things up, and then they leave."
The community dialogue is Lawson's last major undertaking before his August 1 retirement. Captain Gregory Meyer takes the helm.