HOUGHTON COUNTY — Tuesday evening, local pastors and law enforcement heads joined together in an open-invite webinar, “Keeping Disagreement Civil.”
Panelists included Houghton County Sheriff Brian McClean, Hancock Chief of Police Wayne Butler, Houghton Chief of Police John Donnelly, Michigan Tech Chief of Police Brian Cadwell, Michigan State Police Sgt. Matt Djerf, Pastor Bucky Beach, Rev. Sarah Semmler-Smith, and Pastor Peter Norland.
The panelists focused on how to navigate potentially dangerous interactions and how to keep situations calm, whether it be between citizens and law enforcement, or citizen to citizen.
“Well, what should we do in rough situations?” Beach asked the attendees. “What does law enforcement recommend we do? What do our leaders of faith suggest?”
Semmler-Smith, who works at Finlandia University, shared her experience about the BLM march earlier this summer, saying that she is not from here originally, and she was worried about joining the march with her children, in case there was a violent situation at any point.
“The area isn’t used to these marches, but we’ve always been peaceful,” said McLean. “The worst we’ve had is noise issues, one side shouting at the other or someone noisily revving their truck.
“We’re aware violence could happen, but we haven’t seen it. As professionals, we should be prepared for it, though.”
“What is the posture of law enforcement?” askes Semmler-Smith. “What can we as citizens do to keep things peaceful?”
“Communication and staying on the same page is the first step,” Donnelly said. “We have an open door policy.”
Donnelly went on to express how important it is that the community knows who is protecting them, and that the police know who they are protecting.
“Most people are on a first name basis with at least one officer. There’s a big chance one of our kids goes to school with one of your kids,” said Donnelly.
Cadwell explained one of the biggest issues is, “the sides don’t want to listen to each other. It’s not whether we agree or not; it’s about people being safe and everyone being able to safely express themselves. We have to respect each other’s feelings, or at least tolerate them. We don’t have to like it, but we have to keep things civil.”
Donnelly said there have been some groups that carried vulgar signs he wished they did not and that for the most part, officers can ask them to not carry inappropriate signs, and various demonstrators are usually good about that.
Sgt. Djerf explained that how the officers feel about a topic doesn’t matter, and should not affect their jobs performance.
“We have to be unbiased,” Djerf said, “We swore to protect the Constitution. We have to use common sense, and enforce what laws are there.”
When asked about Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s order barring carrying from polling places, the panel stated that it’s an unconstitutional order.
“We can’t legally tell them they can’t open carry,” McLean said. “Some polling places are at schools or churches where they can’t carry anyway, but Benson’s order is unconstitutional. Lingering in an intimidating manner is different. You can come in, vote and leave with a gun, but that’s it. Don’t hang around.”
“How do we set up expectations of remaining civil, and how is law enforcement game planning?” asked Rev. Beach in regards to the Nov. 3 election.
“We’ll have extra staff on hand,” Donnelly said. “We’ll check in with the polling places, exchange phone numbers. We’ve opened communication channels. We’ll stay ahead of it, and we’ll do our best to keep everything verbal.”
“We haven’t seen anything suggesting trouble,” McLean added. “We won’t close our eyes and say it can’t happen. There’s no one on our radar screens that we know of, regarding the election.”
Should anything happen, or should someone feel like something is going to happen, Rev. Beach asked “When do we call the police?” be it election or mask-related issues.
“Don’t engage,” said Donnelly. “I don’t see a conversation or open argument going anywhere. I think continued education and communication is the key,” over openly fighting.
“Heavy enforcement is going to bring problems. We’re going in the right direction towards public safety.”
“Think about not going to a place you expect isn’t safe or where there’ll be trouble,” Djerf said. “Just avoid conflict as much as you can. You can control your own behavior, not theirs.”
The overarching and closing message from the panel is to stay respectful, for everyone to keep calm heads and to not let emotions or personal feelings carry a situation into a dangerous situation.
“We’re in the Copper Country,” Donnelly said, “It’s sad that all of these national issues are coming here, but after the election, we’ll still be here and you’ll still be here. We need to live together, and I think this is a great place to do that.”
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