“We’re here to find out how people feel about their communities.”
Nearly every Sunday for more than a year, the Chief of Police and the Fire Chief in Longmont, Mike Butler, along with longtime community organizer and former Mayor Pro-tem Dan Benevidez, have been walking through different neighborhoods in Longmont, reaching out to residents to see how they feel about the city where they live and whether or not they feel they belong there. The idea is to make people feel connected to Longmont and give them a sense of belonging. Chief Butler says that he and Dan plan on walking through every neighborhood in Longmont but for the past year they’ve focused on lower income, mostly predominately Spanish speaking neighborhoods “simply because it was our sense that perhaps these people feel a little bit more marginalized because they’re not part of the main stream, we don’t see these folks in meetings, we don’t see these folks being part of the decision making process. And a lot of folks who don’t speak English, they perhaps feel apart and separate from the community itself and so we’re just going out into those neighborhoods first, it’s not first and only, but just first, simply because we think they’re the ones, these folks are perhaps maybe the most visible, perhaps the most marginalized and potentially the most disenfranchised.”
Butler and Benavidez say that being isolated and disconnected is a condition of modern living. “It doesn’t make any difference whether you live in a neighborhood like we’re walking through or gated communities where people live in starter castles – that sense of being disconnected that sense of isolation is a condition of modern living. So we’re going to hit every neighborhood, we just decided to choose these neighborhoods first.”
Butler asks everyone he meets how long they’ve lived in Longmont, whether they’re happy here, whether they’ve had any interaction with the police or fire department and how that interaction went. Many of the people they meet are Latino and Butler asks them if they’ve ever experienced discrimination in Longmont. Benavidez, a long-time Latino activist in the city says the overwhelming majority of people say they are happy in the city and very few say they have experienced discrimination.
On Sunday August 9th, Butler and Benavidez were joined by Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones as they walk in the vicinity of Lanyon Park in north Longmont. More and more county and city officials are joining them on their walks. Dan Benavidez says this benefits not just the community, but the officials themselves. “When our leaders come right down and see it themselves, you don’t have people going to a community meeting and talking, you can come it and feel it and touch it yourself and sense the community and its problems and its good things.”
Chief Butler says they’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the community, but he says this approach needs to be part of a long-term strategy to engage the community “this is the kind of thing that is a long-term generational kind of process…even though we’ve been doing it for a year, people have appreciated it, they’ve expressed their appreciation.” Chief Butler says he wants to create change in Longmont that extends beyond police and community relations “it’s not just about police and community relationships, that’s important, I’m not trying to dismiss that, but the bigger perspective for us is that people really feel like they belong to our community. And if they feel like they belong, I think that levels the playing field and so it doesn’t make any difference if they’re talking to a police officer, if they feel like they belong, they’re going to feel like they’re on the same playing field as a police officer or someone else in government and that in and of itself begins to be a subset of people feeling belonging.”
All photos: Maeve Conran