As racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri continue to make national headlines, the agencies that make up the Montgomery Public Safety Department are making sure they're prepared to handle different incidents that could garner attention from across the country.
Public Safety Director Christopher Murphy says members of the fire department, police department and emergency communications department met this week to discuss how they would work through different scenarios.
Murphy says a vital part of officers' training is helping build a strong foundation between police and the community that could make all the difference if tensions start to run high.
Every Montgomery police officer completes at least 18 weeks of training at the Montgomery Police Academy before taking the oath of office to protect and to serve. There, they learn the essentials of their jobs, including firearms, emergency vehicle operation, criminal law, constitutional law, ethics, investigative techniques, and other law enforcement coursework.
Since 2011, the MPD has also incorporated a special course into its training that focuses on cultural diversity and bias-based policing.
It's an eight hour course called "Policing in a Historic City: Civil Rights and Wrongs in Montgomery" and the lesson is taught to every recruit that comes through the police academy as well as veteran officers.
Murphy implemented the course in 2011 after taking part in "Lessons of the Holocaust," which features a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum led by a Holocaust survivor. It was part of seminar with the FBI's National Executive Institute.
"The City of Montgomery has experienced great history in the Civil War, in the Civil Rights," Director Murphy said. "We're very conscious of the fact that it's more than just reducing crime numbers, it's more than just responding to crime. It's protecting and serving the community and you serve the community when you're in partnership with that community."
Lt. Stephen Lavender, Training Bureau Commander, says the course is vital when it comes to preparing officers to hit the streets.
"We get officers from all around this country and for them to come in and understand the city that they're policing, I think it is a phenomenal curriculum that we've put together for them," Lavender said. "It teaches them how to be a better police officer, how to serve the citizens of Montgomery and understanding that sometimes, it's not necessarily the uniform showing up, it's some of the history that's taken place between the police department and those communities."
MPD has partnered with Troy University and the Rosa Parks Museum on this curriculum and all students visit the museum and engage with its director, Georgette Norman, in discussions about what it means to police in a historic city.
Lavender says the course touches on some of the major cases that caused racial tensions between the police department and the community, including the Whitehurst case.
Bernard Whitehurst was mistaken for a robbery suspect when he was shot and killed by Montgomery Police in 1975. The murder was covered up, leading to resignations of police officers and the mayor. The city unveiled a historic marker dedicated to Whitehurst at Lister Hill Plaza across from city hall in 2013.
Recruits also learn about the "Todd Road Incident" in 1983 in which several African Americans were charged with assaulting two white plainclothes officers who did not identify themselves and forcefully entered a residence they thought was a crack house but turned out to be a post-funeral gathering. The police officers were wounded in the struggle that resulted from the botched raid and the resulting tense trial ended in an acquittal. Community leaders worked to prevent an outbreak of violence. Several groups like the Friendly Supper Club, One Montgomery and Leadership Montgomery were created after the incident, working to improve race relations.
The course also touches on the "Third Shift Debacle" of 2002 in which police officers were accused of using excessive force in the arrest of 54-year-old Samuel Day.
"We have worked hard and we will continue to work hard to build those relationships so that if an incident happens, there's a certain trust level and there's a certain understanding that we're going to be transparent about that," Murphy said. "Nobody knows what's going to happen on the night shift tonight or any other time with police or fire or any of us but we want to make sure that we are not the police over here and the community over here. We're part of the community. Being part of that fabric helps us if we have to respond to a negative situation."
The current class of MPD recruits will take the Policing in a Historic City: Civil Rights and Wrongs in Montgomery" course in September.