A tense encounter between a Washington police officer and an employee of the LeMoyne Community Center has spurred the center into hosting a meeting next week.
The meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at the LeMoyne Community Center, and will focus on relations between the community and law enforcement.
“We want our community to learn how to speak to officers, but we want officers to learn how to speak to the community,” said Joyce Ellis, the LeMoyne Community Center’s executive director.
Don Ward, 54, is the groundskeeper at LeMoyne Community Center, and helps with after-school programs there. He has worked with the community center for five years. Previously, he had been a corrections officer for two decades.
Ward, who is black, claims that a Washington officer acted aggressively toward him while he was at the community center last Friday. Around 9:30 p.m., Ward said he received a call that a light had been left on at the center.
“I came up to turn the light off, which I do routinely, almost every night. I come up and check the grounds,” Ward said.
While locking up the gate to the playground, Ward said he noticed a group of people near the back of the property.
“I went to show my presence. I was a corrections officer for 20 years; my presence alone makes them straighten up,” Ward said. “I didn’t want to confront them. I just wanted them to see that I was here, that I was around.”
As Ward was walking between two Lincoln Terrace apartment buildings across the street from the community center, a police officer saw him from a lower road.
The officer’s initial reaction, Ward claims, was to shout, “Can I help you?” in a “deep and aggressive” voice.
“I returned it almost the same way: ‘No,’” Ward said. “His next thing was, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘None of your damn business.’”
Eventually, Ward said two or three police cars arrived. The officer told Ward he was being detained, and he needed to hand over his driver’s license.
The day before, Ward had called the police to have a person removed from his property. According to Ward, the same officer responded to that call. Ward said the officer recognized him once he looked at his license and “immediately changed his tone.”
Ward took issue with how the officer approached the situation, believing he was treated differently because the officer made assumptions about who he was.
“There are a lot of people being shot and killed because they’re just walking and minding their business, but the police officer approaches them at the most aggressive level,” Ward said. He believes it is not only a racial issue, but an economic one, as well, and those in low-income areas often are treated poorly by police.
“I believe that this officer is not a bad person. He really believes he was doing his job, that when he entered this housing unit area, there are different rules he can play by,” Ward said. “When he comes to my house and he sees a nice home in a nice area, he feels like he has to conduct himself differently.”
Ward and Ellis spoke with Washington police Chief Robert Wilson on the phone about the incident, and Ward filed a formal complaint with the department. Ellis also spoke with other local officials, inviting them to next week’s meeting. Washington Mayor Scott Putnam said he will attend if he is available.
“I would hope that it’s how to speak with police officers, being respectful and not escalating the situation,” Putnam said. “I want to know what we can do to make the situations better in the future.”
Ellis, Ward and Putnam all said Wilson expressed that he was not interested in attending the meeting. Multiple calls to the police department for comment were not returned.
For Ellis, next week’s meeting is an opportunity to ease tensions in the community. She pointed to other communities where young black men being shot by police has led to unrest.
“Any little thing could trigger an uproar, and I’m trying to keep the peace,” Ellis said. “If he came aggressively at a grown man, imagine how he is going to come at a kid.”