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We can all find common ground: How Deputy Chief Kelly uses Empathy and Relationships to Build Bridges

Finding common ground is at the heart of Deputy Chief Melron Kelly’s efforts to build strong community relationships. Deputy Chief Kelly has served with the Columbia Police Department (CPD) since 1999. In that time, he has demonstrated that he is a powerful force for facilitating positive change. We had the opportunity to catch up with Deputy Chief Kelly to talk about his recent initiatives, including CPD’s Cops and Barber Shops Breakfast.

“Relationships are everything”

CPD, led by Chief Skip Holbrook, is committed to community policing. In fact, they are one of 15 departments recognized nationally for outstanding work in 21st Century Policing. One of the most impressive aspects of CPD’s community efforts is their creativity in identifying unique solutions to building bridges with the community. So, when Deputy Chief Kelly suggested that they partner with local barbers in the area, Chief Holbrook was on board.

“Who really has the pulse of everyone in the community? And that’s typically barbers and beauticians,” shared Deputy Chief Kelly. The idea emerged out of Deputy Chief’s own personal experience. Raised by a single-mom, Kelly found independence and guidance at the barbershop. “It was one of the first places my mom could send me to,” said Kelly of visiting barber shops as a young boy.

This vision lead to the creation of the Cops and Barber Shop Breakfast. Local barber shop owners and workers were invited by CPD officers in their region to attend a meet and greet breakfast with staff. Over twenty five cops and barbers joined together for a breakfast that was intended to bring people together. “We just wanted to have a talk.” Kelly said the conversations ranged from sports to religion and it was there they found common ground. “It wasn’t really about law enforcement,” Kelly said. “Relationships are everything.”

Kelly shared a powerful story of a relationship that he developed with a barber at the event. He was inspired by a barber who had completed a sentence in prison and voiced his commitment to partnering with law enforcement to keep others out of prison: “We are together and we want to keep you out of trouble… for us to have a united front and say, ‘What can I do?'”

CPD plans to expand the initiative to include beauticians in the near future.

Beyond the Food: Building Bridges and Creating New Opportunities

The Cops and Barbershops Breakfast is not the only creative initiative spearheaded by Deputy Chief Kelly.

For example, Deputy Chief Kelly started CPD’s Food Truck Friday. He says that the event emerged one day when deciding with his fellow officers where to eat for lunch. They realized everyone loves food and designed the event to be a place where community members could join officers for a free meal from a local vendor. “We love the interaction, we love meeting people. Some people said that they had never had lunch with a cop before.” Importantly, the initiative doesn’t end when the food is put away. Deputy Chief shared that as a result of the Food Truck Friday events, students from the Urban League started working at CPD.

Deputy Chief shared another example of how initiatives have the potential to go beyond food. CPD hosts Ice Cream Truck events in low-income housing communities. At the events, officers are on hand to give out ice cream and hot dogs to people living in the community. It is a chance for camaraderie and it is also a chance to reach out to members of the community who may be distrustful of police. Deputy Chief Kelly reflected on an incident where at one event, children in the neighborhood shared about one child whose parents would not let him visit with the police. “It broke my heart to see,” Deputy Chief Kelly said, “It said to me: we need to do more… We know the negative stigma in some places are around law enforcement but part of the reason I think part of why we are here is to tear down those fences.” He used the experience as an opportunity to build bridges – they reached out to the family to have a conversation. The result? The child was able to join in for an ice cream.

“We always see people at their worst. So, it is our job to help build them up.”

Driven by Empathy

Understanding and empathy are core to Deputy Chief’s values. “People think we whisk off to a magic place when we are off duty, but we enjoy the same things,”
Deputy Chief shared. To him, it is important to have opportunities where police can come out of their shell and be seen as a normal person. “What you find is you have way more in common.”

These conversations, he says, can lead to understanding and may also help recruit future officers. This is part of the goal of their Young Ambassadors for Justice program which is geared towards promoting mutual dialogue between law enforcement and local youth. The opportunity allows high school students to directly discuss youth-related topics with members of the department’s command leadership staff. Deputy Chief Kelly shared that the program allows for youth from different schools come together who may not otherwise come together. These relationships, he says, are important for building a better society.

“Arresting people is the easy part,” Deputy Chief Kelly shared. “It’s what we do to keep people out of trouble. If they make one mistake, making sure they don’t make another one. Just being a mentor to folks who need it. You never know what another person is going through… Just knowing how someone’s day is going can change their whole outlook.”

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