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Where were we?
Where are we now?
Where are we going?
At the Nov. 14 meeting of the O.C. Sheriff’s Interfaith Advisory Council, leaders addressed those questions before expressing gratitude for the woman who helped form the panel in 2015, Sandra Hutchens.
It was Hutchens’ last meeting on the council ahead of her retirement as O.C. sheriff in late December.
Her contributions to the council, which brings together members of diverse faith communities to engage with the OCSD to impact policy, improve mutual understanding, and develop relationships, won’t be forgotten, council members said.
“We are so grateful, so much more better off, and so much safer because of your presence and your leadership,” Rabbi Rick Steinberg said during his turn to send off Hutchens with words of appreciation.
Several council members mentioned the recent attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead. The Oct. 27 attack at the Tree of Life synagogue is believed to be the deadliest on the Jewish community in U.S. history, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Just days after the massacre in Pittsburgh, the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Irvine was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.
Nerves remain jittery that similar attacks, as well as hate crimes against other groups, could happen in Orange County, a fear that underscores how important the work of the O.C. Sheriff’s Interfaith Advisory Council continues to be.
When the council was formed, a year after the controversial fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., tensions especially were high nationally between law enforcement and, in particular, the black community.
Although Orange County didn’t experience the social unrest over police shootings that unfolded in Ferguson and elsewhere, distrust of law enforcement reverberated everywhere.
Aiming to improve communication and develop relationships, Hutchens worked with leaders from Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Irvine, other faith leaders, and the OC Human Relations Commission to convene the Interfaith Advisory Council.
Irvine PD Chief Mike Hamel and his agency later joined in the partnership, which in an earlier version was known as the OCSD Diversity Advisory Council, formed in 2013 by OCSD Public Affairs Manager Carrie Braun.
In August 2006, Hutchens was front and center, along with Hamel and AME Pastor the Rev. Mark Whitlock, at a first-ever Solidarity March in Irvine, which brought together council members with faith organizations and law enforcement agencies.
“We accomplished a lot in terms of educating each other about our various religions…but more importantly…about our hearts,” Hutchens said in comments assessing the accomplishments of the council.
“It took a few years to get to know each other very well so that there was trust and we could talk about difficult issues,” Hutchens said. “We could express different opinions, and in these times that’s not always easy to do.”
The O.C. Sheriff’s Interfaith Advisory Council has engaged in a variety of efforts, including diversity and implicit-bias training, as well as educational sessions on topics ranging from undocumented immigrants, homelessness and school safety.
Its members also have visited dozens of faith centers in Orange County.
“When we met with the sheriff several years ago,” Whitlock said, “we were dealing with real challenges nationally. I’m 64 and I can remember when you revered law enforcement, but rarely did you have a one-on-one relationship or a non-confrontational situation.
“When (Whitlock and Rusty Kennedy, then head of the Orange County Human Relations Commission) met with our sheriff, she was open and she was incredibly dialectic, and when we created (the council), she was all for it,” Whitlock said.
“I went back to my congregation and talked about a woman who walked on water, or certainly knew where all the rocks are,” Whitlock added. “I just want to celebrate her. This organization, I think, has had measurable results and positive outcomes.”
Kennedy, who served as executive director/CEO of the Orange County Human Relations Commission from 1981-2017, praised Hutchens for her role on the council, which moving forward will be assumed by Undersheriff Don Barnes, who also was at the Nov. 14 meeting.
Kennedy said the council’s work has led to a deeper level of conversation between police and various community groups. Moving forward, he urged the council to include new voices.
“Part of the challenge is to get beyond this small group of friends and get deeper into the (sheriff’s) department and other congregations and figure out how to make…broader community change,” Kennedy said.
“We have to constantly bring in new people,” Kennedy added. “(Also), we have to resist the temptation to become a cheering squad for law enforcement or the sheriff or in general. We have to constantly be inviting in the disparate voices of those who are complaining and throwing rocks at us and hear what their thoughts are and talk to them about what our motives are.”
Barnes said one of things he’s most proud of is the work the council has accomplished in building up mutual respect and understanding among different groups.
“When you get down to it, we’re not on opposite ends of the room,” Barnes said. “We’re in the middle. We all want the same thing. We all want a safe community, and we all want to be respected for our traditions.”
Barnes said he hopes other law enforcement agencies follow the model of the O.C. Sheriff’s Interfaith Advisory Council.
“The biggest challenge we have is to think we’ve arrived,” Barnes added. “Once we think we’ve arrived…we’re done. We’re nowhere near done. We just chipped one cube off the top of the iceberg.”
Hutchens said her work on the council exemplified her approach to law enforcement.
“Being sheriff is not about just running a law enforcement agency, “ she told the religious leaders. “It’s interacting and being part of the community, and I hope you feel like we’ve been part of your community.”
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