Needham Select Board Member Marcus Nelson speaks during the first session of Connections: Cops & Community on March 1.

Seeking to promote greater understanding between the community and its Police Department, the town of Needham is hosting public discussions this spring around policing issues.

Needham is hosting “Connections: Cops & Community,” a three-part series focusing on various aspects of policing and on diversity, equity and inclusion. The series was organized by town leaders and community organizations in their ongoing efforts to make Needham a welcoming place for both residents and visitors.

Amid difficult national conversations about the relationship between police agencies and the communities they serve, Needham Police Chief John Schlittler said his department is working to build trust with the town’s different constituencies, and wants residents to feel comfortable reaching out to the police if they have concerns or questions about the department’s operations.

“Needham is becoming more diversified, and has been over the last several years,” Schlittler said. “And I think we want the people in town, every person in town, to think that the Police Department is working for all of them, not just a portion of society.”

The first discussion, on March 1, focused on the history of policing in the United States and in Needham, along with a breakdown of the department’s current structure. Select Board Member Marcus Nelson said the town will only get stronger if the different parts of the community work together, listen to each other, and keep an open mind when approaching these issues.

“Everybody here loves the town that we live in, and I can say that with a smile on my face, because it’s true,” Nelson told the crowd. “So we all want to do things to the best of our abilities to help progress this town and take it to a place where any and everybody that enters the town of Needham feels safe, seen and heard.”

The second session, scheduled for May 17 in a hybrid format, will focus on the department’s work with youth. The final session, which will be held sometime in June, is expected to expand on issues raised in the first two sessions, and focus on the relationship between law enforcement and people of color.

Shortly after the first session, Schlittler told the MMA that police departments should do a better job of explaining the complexities and challenges they face, as well as the positive work they’re doing.

Needham’s Police Department has already been making changes, he said, including providing more detailed statistics and increasing training. It is also working on its first annual report, which will include statistics on arrests, motor vehicle stops, use of force, and other actions, as well as information about training, officer awards and initiatives.

The idea for the community dialogues grew out of discussions by the Needham Unite Against Racism Initiative, which is composed of residents, community advocates and Select Board members, including Nelson. The initiative was formed in 2020 to “foster a dialogue about racism in Needham and produce actionable strategies to ensure Needham is a welcoming and inclusive community.”

The group engaged community members to plan the policing discussions, and envisions future dialogues on other facets of society affected by racism and issues of equity, including housing and education.

“Our ultimate goal is that Needham is a desirable place for anybody of any race to feel comfortable and to live in,” said Select Board Member Marianne Cooley, who serves as chair of the Needham Unite Against Racism Initiative. “We want anybody who lives in Needham to be able to say to a friend, ‘You should live in Needham. It’s a great place to live.’ And we know that’s not where we are today, and so that’s what we’re looking to change.”

Written by