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Mayor: Police relationship unkind to citizens

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Mayor Charles Yarbrough

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Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on CNN.com providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

(CNN) -- The mayor of Benton Harbor, Michigan, on Wednesday called for calm from residents after two nights of rioting that followed the death of a motorcyclist fleeing police. In an interview with CNN's Lou Dobbs, Mayor Charles Yarbrough said the situation can be resolved without further violence.

DOBBS: This is, I know, an extraordinarily tense time for you and a difficult time. It is all but inconceivable, I think, to most of us that a town of 12,000 people in this country could be in the year 2003 going through this. What do you see as the root problem in your community?

YARBROUGH: There's been a problem in this community for quite a while, Lou. The police relationship has not been very kind to our citizens. This is just the straw that broke the camel's back, in my opinion. But I'm here tonight to ask our residents for peace and calm tonight. We're going to investigate this situation, find out who is responsible for it and let the chips fall where they may. I'm telling our citizens to stay off the streets tonight, and stop the violence. Let's stop destroying our own community, because we live here.

DOBBS: Mayor, I know you've got a ...

YARBROUGH: And as the mayor of this community, I have promised our citizens that we will find out who is in the wrong in this situation. It's a sad situation. I would like to state my concerns for the families of the victims, for the police officers. Everybody feels bad. This is a tragic situation to happen in a small town. We're going get to the bottom of it. And as the mayor, Lou, we're going to stop this situation.

DOBBS: Mayor Yarbrough, let me be straightforward about this.

YARBROUGH: OK

DOBBS: Your community is predominantly African-American. The power structure, if you will, in your community, is African-American. Your police chief is African-American, the predominant number of your police officers. This is not fundamentally, it appears at least, superficially, a racial issue. Why is there such a contest, such tension between your community and this police department?

YARBROUGH: Well, it's not this police department. It's the departments from the surrounding communities. Benton Township is right across the border from the city of Benton Harbor. So the city of Benton Harbor was not involved in this high speed chase in our community. It was police from Benton Township. And that's been a longstanding problem with them.

DOBBS: A longstanding problem, Mr. Mayor, but let's put in context for our viewers. [There's] something else that's fundamental in your community, and that is an astonishing unemployment rate. Is that correct?

YARBROUGH: That is correct.

DOBBS: And the average medium income in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in 2003 is $8,500. Against that backdrop of economic devastation, what can the community do? What has the community been doing? Where have your churches been? Where have your schools, your community leaders -- we're talking about the police force, but where in the world are the institutions of your community to deal with these issues?

YARBROUGH: They've basically been silent. And that's what we're going to have to work on. Everybody has to get involved to solve this problem. The churches, the school system and the city leaders. And I'm the mayor of this community, I'm going to have to take the lead in this. The other city officials are willing to join with me and correct this problem immediately.


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