At a recent luncheon of about 200 educators, business people and church and community representatives involved in the One Wyoming collaborative, Wyoming Director of Police and Fire Services Chief James Carmody posed a question to the crowd: “Will anyone who is currently attending high school please raise their hand?”
No hands were raised, and thus Carmody made his point. At a meeting of passionate, committed leaders, why weren’t youth present? It was an all-too-common scenario. “Here we are again, finding ourselves talking about the future of our community and the future of our young people, but we are not allowing them to be at the table.”
Carmody himself has made it a priority over the past three years to give high school students a voice at the table. Every week he spends an hour meeting with students, rotating between Wyoming, Godwin Heights, Lee and Kelloggsville high schools to hear their thoughts, receive input and help bridge any divide that may exist between the police force and community.
“I think the importance of how you guys fit into the whole thing is: What do you see in terms of your future here in the city?” Carmody told Godwin students at a February session. “The bottom line is hopefully at some point, whether it’s here or some other community, you realize the value of getting involved.”
While Carmody, who has served in law enforcement for 43 years and has headed the Wyoming force since 2006, is retiring April 26, he said the department’s work with high school students will continue under his successor.
“I’m old enough be your grandfather but young enough to know you have a big, big impact on what’s going on the city,” he told the Godwin Heights students. “This isn’t going away. It’s been too valuable.”
During sessions, students ask for information about law enforcement and crimes. They seek Carmody’s perspectives on issues and share their own thoughts. They said they’ve learned a lot about the role of officers in Wyoming.
“We can talk to him about issues now. He can do something about it and we get a lot of useful information,” said Godwin Heights freshman Madisyn Rogers.
Students said they’ve also learned that police officers’ main objective is not to lock people up. “He wants to make the world a better place,” said freshman Jeffrey Young.
Carmody said the sessions humanize both teens and officers: “(Teens) don’t want to be defined by that one person who goes out and does horrible things. They don’t want to be painted with a broad stroke of the brush. On that same token, neither do we.”
Looking Beyond the Uniform
Students have gotten to know the candid Carmody, who always encourages two-way dialogue and listens to different points of view. He said he started the meetings to give students a chance to get to know him as more than a cop and to directly address what matters to them. He said he’s learned that he and students care about a lot of the same things.
“I really wanted to get down and find out what they think of us,” he said, noting that nothing good is gained from fear of police officers, and that reaching students at a young age is important. Still, police mistrust has become a heated issue nationwide. “I don’t ask for people to do anything other than be objective and to question both sides.”
In Wyoming, he said his role is to serve and protect the public, regardless of anyone’s legal status.
“I’ve gone out on public record where I fall on immigration, and I’m not ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). When I go to someone’s home, I’m not asking for their identification because I want to find out what their status is. I’m asking for their identification because I’m going to have to reach back to that person and talk to them. That’s an uphill battle. But we are not here to do (ICE’s) work.”
Two years ago, students from the groups were invited to a Wyoming City Council retreat and offered valuable input, Carmody said.
“A lot of them want a safe, secure community whether it’s here or anyone else,” he said. “They want to have jobs. They want to know their families have resources and that their families are taken care of. Those are the same questions everybody asks.”
At the Godwin meeting, students asked if they could come to Carmody’s retirement party and mentioned hosting their own. Carmody talked about his past, including highlights of serving on the force and how public safety has evolved over the years. They also talked about the Super Bowl, applying to colleges and planned majors.
It was a conversation between a police chief and teens who have taken the time to get to know one another. “We’ve found mutual respect,” Carmody said.