It was with particular sadness that I sat through the latter part of this year’s BUILD’s convocation at Heritage Hall.
BUILD (Building a United Interfaith Lexington Through Direct Action) is an interfaith advocacy group comprising 26 of Lexington’s Christian congregations — Protestant and Catholic, black and white. It is an important vehicle for interracial collaboration in Lexington.
BUILD boasts a record of effective advocacy in areas ranging from affordable housing to drug- and mental-health issues. It works on an annual cycle beginning in the fall when groups consider an array of community problems. In subsequent gatherings, members sift and prioritize the concerns.
Volunteer teams then research issues, seek effective solutions and develop proposals for action. Finally proposals are presented to leaders in a position to initiate action at a spring convocation, called a Nehemiah Action after a Biblical rebuilder of Jerusalem.
The last proposal at this year’s convocation asked that Lexington’s public-safety commissioner attend a conference of the National Network for Safe Communities and seek a contract to implement evidence-based policing models advanced by the NNSC.
The proposal echoed BUILD’s 2016 request which the police department rejected. But BUILD is characterized by persistence. When a request is not adopted, it may be tweaked; but almost certainly will return to the next Nehemiah Action. There, close to 2,000 BUILD faithful convene in a pep-rally atmosphere as their proposals are presented to key officials.
BUILD embraces clear ideas about accountability and disdains evasive responses. Therefore, it insists officials respond “yes” or “no” to action requests. Only then may they offer explanatory statements. Occasionally BUILD proposals may sound like an ultimatum.
Though invited, no city officials were present to respond to BUILD’s proposal for transforming police practices.
Instead, BUILD received a letter signed by the mayor and law-enforcement officials. The letter cited the addition of 30 new police officers and six safety officers and a planned Lexington One initiative to “address the root causes impacting community wellness and safety” and indicated “many of the positive activities advocated in the NNSC are either part of Lexington police’s current practices, or are within the city’s capabilities.”
Read from the podium, the letter did not clarify how city plans and practices might match the request. The reaction to the letter — and especially to the absence of a city official — was strongly negative.
Homicides were at a 15-year high in Lexington in 2016. Some speakers questioned city government’s concern for victims and even suggested the concern was reduced because racial minorities were overrepresented in the victim count. The assembly was encouraged to inundate the mayor with phone calls of protest.
I respect people on opposing sides of this debate and have no doubt about their passion for community safety.
Over the past 16 months I had the privilege to work with the Safe Summer Lexington Coalition, which includes community leaders active in BUILD and law enforcement.
We held a three-day session with superb trainers from the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, R.I. We did not get the attendance we hoped, but enjoyed a wonderful diversity of gender, age, ethnicity and backgrounds including police, ex-felons, pastors, counselors, teachers and students. Ideas emerged which will spur Safe Summer Lexington’s growing anti-violence agenda.
Our ongoing objective is a major increase in youth employment. A 2012 survey revealed that as the highest priority of Lexington’s youth. The motto of one of the country’s largest anti-gang programs is, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
My hope is that law enforcement and BUILD leaders will reach a mutual understanding of how current and proposed police practices conform to local needs and the spirit of the NNSC goals. Their common ground is huge as is their commitment to a safe and thriving Lexington.
T. Kerby Neill serves on the board of the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice.
At issue: Herald-Leader article, “Interfaith group wants Lexington to contract with anti-violence organization”