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story.lead_photo.caption Darius Watson, political science professor, poses for a portrait in his office on the Lincoln University campus in Jefferson City. Photo by Beaumont Enterprise (Beaumont) / News Tribune.

Lincoln University, the News Tribune and KRCG TV are partnering to sponsor a Jefferson City Community Engagement Series that will kick off with a townhall event focused on improving public safety in the community.

LU political science professor Darius Watson said everyone wants things to get better, but "the question seems to be: How do we make it happen?"

When Watson moved to Missouri last year to take his position at LU, he said, he was struck by the observation "everyone had an honest desire to improve what they saw as areas of the community that could be improved."

However, he also observed a disconnect between stakeholders and the people who make decisions.

Watson said a townhall approach to making a structure that captures all perspectives has historically had its problems — a risk that the event gets taken over by charged emotions and decision-makers get personally defensive, and there might not be a lot of follow-up on producing practical results or initiatives.

That's why the plan is to follow up the townhall next month with a roundtable discussion in the spring between stakeholders and decision-makers who will use the agenda developed from the townhall event to create practical solutions.

Within the focus on relationships between the community and police, some specific issues that may come up include the roles and relationships of school resource officers, mitigating youth crime through education structures and alternative or more variety of after-school activities for young adults, including students from LU, Watson said.

The townhall will be a virtual event because of the COVID-19 pandemic, to be 6:30-7:30 p.m. Oct. 15.

Five socially-distanced panelists will offer answers and insights to questions from the community, and the event will be digitally broadcast — managed by KRCG — from Richardson Auditorium on LU's campus.

Watson is not alone in making the events happen, and he credited other community leaders for their roles: "Everybody's chipped in."

It's a goal to annually duplicate the framework with a different topic — perhaps education or empowering senior citizens, he said.

Asked if the disruption to people's lives this year from the pandemic might open up new avenues of conversation and thinking about standing issues, Watson said while that's possible, emergencies can also lead people to hunker down and stick to what they know.

What the pandemic has done, however, is "create an open space that wasn't there before" in people's daily lives, where more people are considering big-picture perspectives, he said.

Watson said this year's events are having agencies consider broader understandings of diversity, and everything from local convenience stores to state government has had to consider how it engages with the public.

"We're all sort of rethinking how to approach this," he said, but added the question is whether that will lead to engagement with new approaches and understandings.

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