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Local officials and community leaders participate in a ribbon cutting Thursday morning for Baton Rouge's first community connections center, meant to encourage interactions between residents and police officers.

The Baton Rouge Community Police Ambassadors program is gearing up for its second class of recruits who will continue working to bridge the gap between local law enforcement officers and residents.

Program leaders said they've learned from their experiences with the first class, which started training in January 2018 and will serve through the end of this year. Some have questioned how much the group has accomplished toward its mission of building trust and understanding. 

East Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who has been instrumental in launching the program, said she never expected change to happen overnight. She said a main priority was "making sure the foundation was laid for future classes."

Since current ambassadors have established relationships with officers in their assigned law enforcement districts, Wicker said, she's hopeful the next class can focus more on connecting with residents and organizations within their neighborhoods. 

Applications are now open and will be accepted through the end of September. Anyone who lives in East Baton Rouge Parish and is 18 or over can apply for the volunteer positions. The ambassadors are meant to facilitate communication between officers and residents in the neighborhoods and law enforcement districts where they live. 

Members of the next class will start training in October, overlapping a few months with their predecessors. The training addresses aspects of the criminal justice system from the perspective of law enforcement and the public.

The program was launched in early 2018 after almost two years of planning, which began during public discussions after the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling and subsequent ambush on Baton Rouge law enforcement that killed three officers and left three others wounded. 

The first class was limited to districts within city limits, which fall under the Baton Rouge Police Department's jurisdiction, but the program is now expanding to include areas patrolled by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office. That will mean a slightly larger group of ambassadors. 

Also on the horizon is the opening of additional "community connections centers," which are meant to create a safe space for interactions between residents and police. The first one opened in Old South Baton Rouge in May. Another is expected to open soon in Scotlandville. 

The current class has faced some unexpected challenges, including tensions within the group itself that left some participants wondering how they could be effective in their mission of building trust within the community if they couldn't overcome issues internally. That prompted Wicker and Metro Councilman Trae Welch to launch a series of public discussions on race aimed at confronting difficult topics that aren't often discussed.

Wicker said that work paid off and she's proud of the outcome. She said lines of communications that had been blocked are now open, including those between ambassadors and police officers. 

"This group has had a tremendous amount of accomplishments," she said. "We personally have seen individuals who walked in with a negative perception of the police department and have undergone a total transformation — people who had little understanding and are now leading the process to build bridges. That's the most encouraging to me because if you can change the perception of one person in a community, then you can change the entire community."

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.