Work in Progress — From Tragedy to Healing: Oak Creek, Wisconsin

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The COPS Office and Not In Our Town have joined forces to increase awareness of hate crimes, improve hate crime reporting, and promote safe, inclusive communities nationwide. Over the next two years, the ‘Not In Our Town: Working Together for Safe, Inclusive Communities’ initiative will provide vital new tools to help law enforcement professionals and community partners work together to prevent hate crimes and address underlying tensions that can lead to violence. Project resources will include an online hub at, a series of new films and Action Guides highlighting successful practices, and a network of law enforcement leaders committed to spreading community policing strategies that promote safety and inclusion for all. This is the first in a series of articles about the project.

In January, the Not In Our Town (NIOT) filmmaking crew traveled to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to document the powerful community actions taking place in the aftermath of the devastating shootings at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin last August. It turned out to be one of the most challenging and inspiring shoots the team has ever experienced. Meeting the brave police officers who responded to the call, talking with congregants who survived the attack, and seeing first-hand the connections that have been made since the attack, the team witnessed the transformation of a community now standing together. NIOT is honored to have the opportunity to tell this story in a new film that will be distributed to law enforcement and community partners in September 2013. This article offers an inside look at this work-in-progress.

Officers Sam Lenda and Donte Moore with Kanwardeep Kaleka after the community forum

On August 5, 2012, a white supremacist opened fire in the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, a suburb of Milwaukee. The attack resulted in the death of six Sikh worshippers and the injury of three others, including Oak Creek Police Lt. Brian Murphy. Two nights after the shooting, the NIOT crew joined five thousand people gathered in the center of town for a community vigil. Residents expressed shock that such an attack could happen in their own “backyard,” and spoke of their commitment to support the Sikh community and continue to celebrate the diversity of their city. Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards told the crowd that in his 28 years of law enforcement he had seen a lot of hate and a lot of anger, but he had never before seen the kind of compassion, concern, and support that had emerged in the wake of the tragedy—from residents, and from the Sikh community itself. He announced that the police department planned to work very closely with the Sikh community to make sure they felt safe. Mayor Steve Scaffidi recalled later that as he looked across the sea of people—many wearing white head scarves in honor of the Sikh tradition—he made a commitment to stand with the Sikhs for as long as he is Mayor.

Returning to Oak Creek five months later, NIOT encountered painful reminders of the horrific shootings, as well as widespread efforts to heal. The crew watched the video footage from Lt. Brian Murphy and Officer Sam Lenda’s cars the day of the shooting. Their bravery was phenomenal. Lt. Brian Murphy, who was shot 15 times while in the parking lot of the temple, said he finds inspiration in the members of the Sikh community, who embrace forgiveness and love over hate.

Portraits of the six Sikh worshippers killed in the shooting hang on the wall at the entrance of the Temple

On a Sunday afternoon, hundreds gathered at the temple, where memories of the tragedy remain close to the surface. A young medical student, Kanwardeep Kaleka, broke down as he spoke of the loss of his uncle Satwant Singh Kaleka, a man who helped raise him, and served as President of the Temple.

While members of the Temple retold scenes of horror, every person was clear that their friends, family members, and fellow congregants did not die in vain. The outpouring of response from Oak Creek, across the country, and around the world have framed the way they view their loss, and the connections made in the community have created a way for them to move forward.

Chief Edwards at Oak Creek Sikh Temple

At a public forum in January, Chief Edwards, Mayor Scaffidi, U.S. Attorney James Santelle, and others asked, “How can each of us change the cycle of violence in our community?” As he stood with two police officers, Kanwardeep Kaleka realized he was meeting Sam Lenda, the officer who took down the killer. Reflecting on the incident, he explained, “I always thought of police officers as the ones who cause harm, like the Rodney King incident; but this experience has opened my eyes to the incredible service and protection that police officers provide.” Chief Edwards continues to advocate that Sikhs need to be counted in the federal hate crime statistics.

The Message of Oak Creek
Hate crimes not only destroy lives and devastate families; they also traumatize the communities in which they occur. The story of Oak Creek demonstrates the important interplay between hate crime victims, law enforcement, and the greater community. When law enforcement and community partners act together to provide a powerful response, they can reassure victims and avoid increased tension, hostility, and violence in the community.

Call for Leaders
The Not In Our Town: Working Together for Safe, Inclusive Communities initiative is looking for some good leaders. A network of 50 law enforcement leaders is being recruited to serve in an advisory role to the greater law enforcement community and to spread the project and its tools. Are you willing to step up and take part in this national effort? If so, please visit

For more information about the Not In Our Town National Law Enforcement Leaders Network, please visit

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