Earth Notes
11:31 pm
Thu September 14, 2006

Sunnyside and police try to rebuild trust

Flagstaff, AZ – What happened that night isn't easy to explain. At a recent community meeting at an elementary school in Sunnyside deputy Chief Josh Copley recounted the events that led to Kyle Garcia's death. Copley says the officers attempted to pull over Garcia for playing his music too loud. Garcia kept driving. He pulled his car into a parking lot and turned around. The two officers blocked the entrance. That's when Copley says Garcia revved his engine and drove at them.

COPLEY: We have a pretty close fire situation where the officers are sandwiched between their vehicle and an oncoming vehicle that they feel was coming directly at them. They felt their lives were in jeopardy. They made I think it was a tragic decision but a decision an officer needs to make in a wink of an eye.

That decision to fire their guns at Garcia is under investigation. Family and friends are having trouble swallowing the information. And many still have doubts. Amber Chavez was a friend of Kyle's.

CHAVEZ: The trust is gone between the community and the officers on this side of town. It's gone and that's going to take a long time for them to gain that. And they need to come back into this community to do that.

Sunnyside resident Joe Ray says he's seen a lot of changes in the more than 50 years he's lived here. But one thing hasn't changed. He says the relationship between the neighborhood and the police department has always been a bit strained.

RAY: I believe a big segment of the community out here has always had a mistrust with the police department. But what I would say to everybody is let's use this as our wake up call. Can we do better with the police force? Absolutely. But you know what until we unify the community until we all come together as one nothing's going to change.

That's exactly what police Chief Brent Cooper says they're trying to do. Several police officers attended the meeting.

COOPER: I would submit that with the majority of residents in the neighborhood we still have that trust, although I'm the first one to admit that it has been damaged over this tragic event. Anytime the police need to take a life we need to be held accountable for that use of force. We do not take that lightly by any means.

Cooper says they plan to provide better training for officers. He says every officer in the department regrets what occurred and many issues came to a head on August 19th.

COOPER: I believe it was a series of tragic events beginning with the young man who has had a difficult upbringing. I do believe that he suffered from a lot of the ills of this community and this nation as a whole as far as the issue of crystal meth. I honestly feel the officers acted out of fear.

People at the meeting want to talk about meth and other drug prevention and treatment programs. One Sunnyside resident says there aren't enough resources in Flagstaff.

There's parents out there I know I'm one of em who has an addict. It's hard being a parent of an addict. It's hard. And at least if you had somewhere to go someone to talk to that's feeling the same pain maybe we can get together and figure out how to keep our kids clean how to keep our kids sober.

Coral Evans heads the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association. She worries about how far this incident has set the community back. Evans says the neighborhood has recently made progress with the Weed and Seed program. That's a federal law enforcement program that aims at weeding out violent crime and drug abuse and seeding the area with prevention, intervention and treatment programs. Evans says Sunnyside gets a bad rap.

EVANS: It really disappoints me that it seems like people have to pick a neighborhood to point at to say that's the worse neighborhood so I can feel safer in my neighborhood.

She believes the problem doesn't lie in any specific neighborhood; the problem lies in the age group.

EVANS: I really believe the youth are crying out and saying, hello between the ages of 16 and 24. We're barely making it. We're struggling we're having some serious issues and can we get some help.'

Kyle Garcia was 23.

After three hours of trying to understand what happened and what to do about it, Coral Evans thanks everyone for being at the meeting.

EVANS: I want to really tell you with a heart-felt thank you because I really think that we're going to get to the bottom of this. We're going to get the answers -- no matter how ugly or how pretty -- we're going to get to the answers. We're also going to come up with some solutions so this doesn't happen again because I think that's really the main thing. This does not need to happen again in our neighborhood or any neighborhood in Flagstaff.

Before everyone leaves, friends and family of Kyle Garcia lead a ceremony. They ask everyone to stand up, come to the center of the room and close their eyes. Someone plays the flute while someone else burns sage and walks around the room. He waves the sage over each person and the room fills with smoke.

Then an unusual thing happens. Everyone in the school gym - Sunnyside neighbors, Garcia's friends and family -- hold hands with the police officers.

For this moment, however fleeting, there is peace in Sunnyside.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.