SPRINGFIELD — Representatives from the federal Department of Justice, the Springfield Police Department and the community met online on June 12 to develop concepts that will become part of the Police Department’s Community engagement plan. The engagement plan was a requirement of the settlement agreement reached between the federal government and the Police Department in August 2022.

Tara Parish of the Pioneer Valley Project facilitated the meeting. After taking a poll that found 86% of participants felt a community engagement plan was “extremely important” and 64% were “very interested” in helping to create the plan, the group was addressed by Police Superintendent Lawrence Akers. Akers told the attendees that as someone “born and raised” in Springfield, he “fully understands the history with the police” in some neighborhoods.

“I fully intend to correct some of the wrongs and expand upon the rights,” he said.

The Settlement Agreement Implementation Unit, led by Capt. Brian Beliveau, delivered a presentation with questions that the Police Department was looking to generate ideas around during the meeting. Then, the 52 people in attendance were split into small breakout groups to brainstorm ideas in response to several of the questions in the presentation.

The breakout groups were asked about increasing interactions between the police and the community, how to get residents involved in creating the engagement plan, what the most essential part of the plan would be and how to effectively survey the community.

One theme that emerged was making the effort for police officers and the community to get to each other. One resident said that the officers who respond in their neighborhood do not live there. “They don’t know our struggle,” they said. Resident Roberta Walker Kilkenny said, “We don’t see police making the rounds, so they don’t really get to know them.”

Beliveau spoke with a resident who said communication was the most important part of the engagement plan. Beliveau agreed, saying that when there is “legitimate conversation and legitimate understanding … everyone comes out on top.”

Sgt. Michael Rodriguez said his breakout room discussed the concept of “cruising” — stopping to talk to people and get to know the residents in each neighborhood — rather than simply driving through. He also said the group agreed that it was important to make sure the police were “seeing people as humans” and that the community saw police officers in the same way.

Introducing children to the police was also a repeated sentiment. Rhonda Hall-Reynolds mentioned that Elias Brookings School, where she worked, was having a “peace day” to help children develop “a healthy relationship with the people who are there to protect them.”

When discussing a lack of internet access for segments of the public, a resident suggested offering an incentive for people to come in person to fill out surveys. Specifically, she suggested providing hot dogs. “If people get something, that’s when they give,” she said, but Beliveau wondered if that might taint the survey responses. Instead, the two brainstormed the idea of releasing short, frequent survey questions, so answering it is not onerous for people.

Beliveau talked about building trust with the community. He said letting the community know who officers are through profiles might make people more willing to interact with them. “The kids that do the job now have a much different approach and social interaction,” he commented, adding that they are more open with residents than previous generations of police. On a similar note, Kilkenny expressed cautious optimism that Akers would have a better relationship with the community.

A draft of the engagement plan will be created at the next quarterly public consent decree meeting in September.