By Theresa D. McClellan
For the Fort Bend Star
Last in a series
Before she walked into the first Citizen’s Academy class, the thought of being stopped on the road by the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office filled Margaret Materre with apprehension.
She shared her concerns with Sheriff Troy Nehls the first day of class.
“With all that you were seeing across the country with police and black people, the shootings and the climate with police, I was terrified about what would happen to me if I got stopped,” said the 55-year-old African-American information technology specialist from Missouri City.
Over the course of the 11-week Citizen’s Academy, the walls Materre had built up slowly started to come down. That’s because week by week, she was one of the 30 citizens who received an up-close and behind the scenes encounter with law enforcement.
Materre and her 29 classmates graduated Thursday as part of the 2016 class of the Fort Bend Sheriff’s Office Citizen’s Police Academy. She and some of the graduates talked with the Star about why they signed up for the class and what they learned.
“I’ve always believed in law enforcement. But with the shootings and things, I wasn’t an advocate. And my opinions from a child up to being an adult, I didn’t understand why these people are getting killed,” said Materre who is also an associate minister.
Members of her family and some friends are in law enforcement, she said.
“The people I know, I’m comfortable and feel safe with. But it is the unknown officer, what is going through their mind, what do they see when they see me?” she wondered.
From the opening talk by Sheriff Nehls, who addressed his concerns about strained relationships and the importance of training and open communication, to encounters simulating what police go through, Materre got her answer.
As a leader, Nehls set the tone on the standards of his office. He acknowledged that not all shootings involving police and citizens across the country are justified. He noted that the overwhelming majority of his officers are disciplined, trained and good communicators.
Week by week, department heads stressed the importance of their training, how they deal with threats, the importance of their special crisis team to de-escalate tense situations, the thoroughness of their multiple special unit teams and how everyone wants to be able to return home at the end of their shift.
When she received her graduation certificate Thursday from the sheriff, Nehls shook her hand and told Materre he was glad she put aside her apprehension and stayed through the entire course.
“I’ve got a few grey hairs on my head and I’m not easily bowled over by things, but that was pretty impressive. He saw me one time and to make that much of an impact. He’s over 800 people and we had one conversation. That he remembered me, that was pretty nice,” she said.
“These weeks have helped me to see the other side. I needed a fuller picture. I had no idea about the decisions police have to make when they encounter someone. They have to make split-second decisions. It made you think,” she said.
She was so impressed that she found herself serving as an advocate for police in her community. She quoted the sheriff during a visit to her hair salon. Someone stated that law enforcement did not care about the black community when something bad happened in their neighborhoods.
Nehls told the audience that residents in some predominately black neighborhoods of Fort Bend County don’t call to complain to police about crime with the same frequency they do in other neighborhoods.
“They (hair customers) were really surprised when I said it makes sense, they (law enforcement) can’t support us if they don’t know what is going on,” recalled Materre.
After graduation she said she wrote the sheriff a letter thanking him for the class and she suggested that all the police departments need to offer the course.
“She also gave him a Bible passage, Psalm 82 verses 3-4, which she said tells what law enforcement officers should do: “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and the needy.”
“It’s easy for me to sit back and assume that people like me are being stopped by you. But I’m open-minded and I’m not going to be so polarizing,” she said.
While Materre was initially wary of police, classmate Gary Minter went out of his way to thank and shake the hand of every officer who led a class. Gary and his wife Katherine took the class together.
“This was an opportunity to do something important together with my wife,” said Gary Minter of Sugar Land. “As for what I have learned, that is simple. They perform a very difficult job that requires a very high degree of training. The real world simulation training certainly gives you a sense of just how dangerous their daily encounters can be. The split-second decision-making they perform is the difference between going home after their shift ends or not.”
He said law enforcement are placed in a difficult position.
“Their job is to take bad actors off the street. They are under such a heightened level scrutiny that they need to know the community recognizes, respects and appreciates the job they do. My wife and I have raised our daughter to see this and be thankful for them.
“Law enforcement is not a perfect science. Things can go wrong. Like in any large corporation there are people that don’t belong there. But at the end of the day we should be grateful there are men and women that are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to protect and serve. They used to be referred to as “peace officers” and that is so appropriate. Regardless of any political leanings, we should all unite in the thought that we want to live in peace. Peace is not free.”