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Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz Shares How Past Lessons Improve Ties with Minority Communities

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By Corey Arvin

Before Ferguson, Mo. plunged into chaos and news spread that unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer, civil rights activists were scanning recent memories of blacks brutalized or murdered by law enforcement.  Community leaders admit Ferguson’s current hyperbolic state stems from a long history of mistrust between police and black communities – and they are ready for solutions that can mitigate violence before it happens again.

Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz knows all too well the sensitivity of race relations when law enforcement polices communities of color. That includes experience when tensions boil over and lead to close confrontations between citizens and police.

Diaz believes building a strong relationship with minority communities requires a cross-section involvement between minorities and police on multiple levels. He says improving diversity of the police force an important starting point since officers are on the ground day-to-day interacting with the community. However, Diaz is aware there some detractors to law enforcement emphasizing diversity.

“Some people might say ‘It doesn’t matter what race the employee is, we expect them to be good no matter what’ but it's just human nature in the absence of knowing the individual that people have a greater degree of trust for people that look like them. There is greater chance of identification when law enforcement reflects the community it serves,” he said.

Diaz reflected on a time when civilian oversight boards became a fixture in Riverside, working side by side with police to address complaints, particularly after the shooting death of Tyisha Miller in 1998. These types of review boards continue to be important to maintaining communication between police and the communities they service, he said.

While strong community relations is an integral part of preventing situations like Ferguson, training officers to respond appropriately and effectively with routine policing is an aspect that Diaz emphasizes. Racial profiling is particularly important to understand in communities of color, which Diaz saw firsthand during his tenure with Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), he said.

“The training is very important. We went through this very painful period in the early 2000’s [in Los Angeles] where we made a lot of progress by retraining our police force on constitutional policing, which means back to the basics. ... We were very focused on them understanding reasonable suspicion and probable cause. ... Racial profiling is the exact opposite of reasonable suspicion and probable cause,” said Diaz.

“Every component [of re-training] had constitutional policing. If you focus on a person’s behavior, not race or ethnicity, you will find something. Ask what is it about that person’s behavior, not appearance, when stopping them,” he added.

Diaz says he hasn’t followed the Ferguson case very closely, but viewed the positioning of Missouri highway patrol’s Capt. Ron Johnson as a good way to help open dialogue so that the community can move forward.

“Some of this stuff is predictable, almost scripted. Maybe it has to happen before the next thing happens – a reconciliation and hearing of each other's points of views, but it's sad to see a community devastated like that.”

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