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A Baton Rouge police officer, left, speaks to members of the New Black Panther Party about the 'rules of the road' for a protest, midway during the demonstration by the group and a handful of other protesters voicing their opinions and reaction to the Alton Sterling case, Saturday, May 6, 2017 near BRPD headquarters.

A group of Baton Rouge citizens, community and criminal justice leaders met at the LSU Museum of Art on Friday for the first of a series called "Dialogue on Race and Policing."

Aimed at improving the relationship between law enforcement and the community, the program is a collaboration between Dialogue on Race Louisiana, a local nonprofit working to eradicate racism, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national non profit working to secure equal justice.

The program brought together Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul, Louisiana's NAACP President Mike McClanahan, local prosecutors, advocates and academics to discuss race and policing. East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux was scheduled to attend but did not make it, though a spokeswoman for Gautreaux's office said Maj. Willie Stewart attended in his place. 

"To have the kind of prestigious level of people in that room sitting around, having an open honest conversation ... is just novel," said Maxine Crump, president and CEO of Dialogue on Race Louisiana. "They were engaged and they willingly cooperated.”

The dialogue is set up in three parts. The first one, on Friday, focused on the history of policing. On subsequent Fridays, they will be talking about "the perception of fairness and procedural justice" and "catalyzing change with dialogue."

The group will also meet in July to develop actions plans to take address race and policing. 

“It was really impossible to discuss policing without discussing race in Baton Rouge," said Myesha Braden, director of the criminal justice project for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. "Policing is not something that happens separate and apart from (the community). We want to encourage a renewed focus on collaboration."

The media were not permitted to attend the dialogue Friday, though Crump said it went well. 

Crump said participants discussed how race played a part in the building of Interstate 110 through Baton Rouge and remains a symbol of racism, because it was built through communities of color, dividing neighborhoods. And, she said, they discussed the protests that erupted after the shooting of Alton Sterling in July 2016.

"Policing and race are very interconnected in our historical founding," Crump said. She said she tries to provide "a greater understanding what that foundation was, and how that may continue to impact ... today." 

Braden said she looks forward to taking such a dialogue on race elsewhere in the country, because the issue is far from unique to Baton Rouge. 

"Hopefully this dialogue is the first of many," Braden said. 

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.