New program will help bridge gap between DPS and community

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

SIKESTON — The Sikeston Department of Public Safety will apply for the Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships program in an effort to improve their relationship with the African American community.

Sikeston City Council voted unanimously to back the program as a large crowd gathered at the Clinton Building in Sikeston Monday evening to discuss the relationship between DPS and the community after two women were killed and seven others injured in a shooting in Sikeston early Sunday morning.

The program, which was on the agenda prior to Sunday’s shooting, is facilitated by the Department of Justice – Community Relations Service and is funded with federal tax dollars so the city would only have incidental fees associated with the program.

“I have recognized our need to improve relations with the African American community,” said Sikeston DPS Director James McMillen. “I feel we are at a time where we must take the initiative and make a concentrated effort to improve this relationship.”

As part of the program, members of the Department of Justice will come to Sikeston and identify a group of representatives from the African American community and bring them together with DPS while facilitating meetings to help the group identify problem areas in their relationship and seek solutions.

“I know this SPCP program will bring criticism on me and the department,” McMillen said. “I understand that we cannot grow without a little pain and discomfort. I’m willing to sit down and take the criticism so we can build trust and do a better job in these relationships.”

Trust was a big topic during the meeting as many in attendance noted their distrust of law enforcement. David Robinson told those in attendance that officers are always removing black individuals from in front of businesses on the west end of Sikeston yet white individuals are allowed to gather in front of businesses like Rhodes and the old Malco Theatre.

Others mentioned other instances with Sikeston DPS that had led to distrust.

“This is why we want this program,” said Sikeston City Manager Jon Douglass. “These are the kinds of discussions we need to have.”

McMillen said the lack of trust hurts both sides.

“Because of the lack of trust people are less likely to complain,” McMillen said. “But without the complaint, I can’t fix it.”

Laurie Mitchell, who lost her son last year to gun violence, told McMillen that in order to get more trust that officers need to be more active in the community.

“I don’t think they realize the positive benefit they can get from doing that,” McMillen answered, saying he encouraged officers to get out in the community more.

McMillen said they must be gaining trust and getting out in the community if they are to communicate better, which is the ultimate goal. He mentioned Sunday’s shooting and the struggle to find information on the shooters.

“Officers are frustrated they aren’t getting information but they also have to ask themselves why they aren’t getting the information,” McMillen said. “I think there are a lot of shared feelings. I think officers feel targeted and misunderstood right now and the African American community feels targeted and misunderstood.”

McMillen also addressed the issue of posting officers on a certain spot to watch a large group. He said it is hard to find the right balance between what is fair and what is going over the line, adding he doesn’t want people to die but he doesn’t want to over-police either.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” McMillen said. “But I think we can find it.”

Sikeston Mayor Steven Burch said he hoped McMillen could convince the Cape Girardeau and Charleston police departments to join the program as well.

“The whole area needs some work, not just Sikeston,” Burch said.

After the council approved backing the program, the conversation continued, which included many agreeing there needs to be different voices talking to city officials.

“I hope this process puts the right people in the room,” Burch said.

Larry McClellan was angry with the council because they had not named a street in Sikeston after Martin Luther King Jr.

McClellan asked who Col. George E. Day was and Burch told him that the council didn’t name the streets.

“The streets aren’t paid for by Sikeston,” Burch said. “It’s paid for by those individuals who develop that property.”

McClellan said that the council continues to disrespect the community by not naming a street after Martin Luther King Jr. and others chimed in they would like to see a street named after him as well.

Burch and Douglass both said they would entertain the idea but that previous discussions with McClellan had yielded no results.

Other issues such as sidewalks along Murray Lane and Branum Street as well as improvements to the softball field at Lincoln Park and attending community events were also brought to the council’s attention during the conversation.

“We’re not going to fix this overnight,” McMillen said. “But I think we can do better.”

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