Manatee NAACP to hold second Bridging the Gap Forum on MLK Jr. Day

MANATEE -- Three of the highest-ranking Manatee County law-enforcement officials will attend a Manatee NAACP forum on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Facilitated by the Rev. Willie Holley, Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski, Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells and 12th Circuit Public Defender Larry L. Eger will take part in the Bridging the Gap Forum, which will be held at 9 a.m. Monday at the 13th Avenue Dream Center, 922 24th St. E., Bradenton.

The program, held in partnership with State College of Florida, Mt. Carmel Community Resource Center, the Dream Center and the Manatee Metro Action Plan, is designed to try to bridge the communications difficulties between law enforcement and minority communities -- a conversation that Manatee NAACP President Susie Copeland began facilitating several months ago.

The first Bridging the Gap Forum was held Oct. 18 at the Palmetto Youth Center.

On Monday, the panelists will be asked to answer questions from comment cards distributed to attendees at the beginning of the event.

Those in attendance will also be given questions related to possible encounters with law enforcement, such as what documents should be presented if one is stopped by a police officer. According to Manatee NAACP President Copeland, it's a way to understand what law enforcement officers are seeking and for officers to understand situations from a minority perspective.

"We want to get ahead of the ball here to prevent anything like that," Copeland said, in reference to the unrest after the fatal Aug. 9, 2014 shooting of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Copeland said that when there is a lack of knowledge, it creates tension between both law enforcement and minority communities.

"We've got to eliminate that," she said. "We've got to get rid of that so that me, as a citizen and resident of the city of Bradenton, that I feel comfortable with law enforcement -- that they're going to do the right thing."

Palmetto Police Chief Wells said he only hears of issues that are presented to him.

"I've not had a lot of issues brought to my attention over the last four years but I think that has a lot to do with we're working with the community on a regular basis," he said. "We're already out there doing things in the minority community, trying to build trust and trying to build relationships."

Wells said his officers are made aware of cultural differences and therefore they have to be aware of how they present themselves when interacting with the public.

"It comes down to treating people the way you would want your family members to be treated," he said.

Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.