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SSU lecture series: Police, public relationships key to public safety, former FBI agent says

“We need to have folks to have the courage to sit down at that table,” M. Quentin Williams said of community members.|

Public safety and trust in law enforcement can be improved if police and community members develop relationships and get to know each other, a small group at Sonoma State University was advised Tuesday night.

M. Quentin Williams, a nonprofit CEO and former FBI agent, was a featured speaker in the evening’s installment of an SSU lecture series that is meant to foster better relationships between police and the communities they serve.

He spoke as part of the “Black and Brown in Blue” series, which was attended by nearly 50 people. During his 90-minute presentation, Williams said there must be a willingness among members of law enforcement and those in the community to work together.

“We need to have folks to have the courage to sit down at that table,” he said of community members.

Williams also urged law enforcement to use social media. Not just to solve crimes, but to also show their personalities — show they’re human beings.

“When folks see law enforcement as a human being, they’re more likely to give you information,” he said.

Williams recalled being pulled over in Rhode Island and detained for an extended period in 1994. He was released without receiving an explanation for why he was stopped in the first place. He added that the experience has weighed heavily on him since then.

It probably wouldn’t, he said, if the police had just taken a few seconds to explain why he was detained.

“Twenty seconds means a lot to the people you’re interacting with.” said Williams, who has been a featured lecturer at events across the country.

He also referenced growing up in poverty in Yonkers, New York ‒ an experience that helps him relate to and build trust in certain groups.

“We have credibility when we walk into room of underserved communities,” Williams said as he emphasized he learned from his mother to interact with members of different socioeconomic groups.

According to the event’s webpage, Williams founded Dedication to Community in 2012.

A national nonprofit based in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of D2C’s aims is to “ensure safe, positive and respectful interaction between all people, in particular between law enforcement and the communities served with the ultimate goal of living as ONE commUNITY,” according to the agency’s website.

It seeks to accomplish these goals by creating workshops and forums that bring the stakeholders together.

D2C also works with government agencies and the private sector on diversity, belonging and equity, and advises on public safety matters, according to its website.

Nehemias Gramajo Signor, a 19-year-old criminal justice major, attended the presentation due to his interest in being involved in the community and not just solving crime.

He said Williams’ lecture was impressive.

“He talked about how we could better the community,” Gramajo Signor said.

Police reform is a hot-button issue in Sonoma County. Advocates have been pushing for more law enforcement oversight for years.

Protests against excessive police use-of-force as well as demands for lasting change, took place locally as they did across the country, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. Chauvin, in April 2021, was convicted of Floyd’s murder.

Sonoma County voters approved Measure P in November 2020. It granted the county’s watchdog agency, the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, greater oversight authority in internal affairs investigations conducted by the Sheriff’s Office.

The measure has been at the center of a contentious disagreement between reform advocates who want greater authority in police accountability cases and unions representing sheriff’s deputies who have said it violates their collective bargaining agreements.

Most recently, there has been a renewed call for greater law enforcement oversight following the fatal July 29 shooting of David Pelaez-Chavez, a 36-year-old farmworker from Lake County, by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who was attempting to arrest him on suspicion of vandalizing property and vehicle theft in Knights Valley.

The lecture series began last year and has helped provide a local context to national issues regarding public safety, SSU Police Chief Nader Oweis said Tuesday.

“Our real focus is to have the dialogue and conversation,” he said.

The lecture was organized by SSU’s Student Involvement organization.

Future speakers include Assistant Sheriff Tanzanika Carter of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department on Oct. 5; and Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety Deputy Chief Kevin Kilgore on Nov 1.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at colin.atagi@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi

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