In the aftermath of a week of racial tension, a number of leaders have pointed to the need for a deeper mutual understanding between police departments and the black community in particular.
This series explores efforts to address the issue in the very places where tension has erupted into violence and anger – St. Paul, Minn., and Dallas – and why those tensions stubbornly endure.
Part 1 of a three-part series.
As an African-American boy in St. Paul, Minn., Jamil Lott had his share of confusing, scary encounters with police.
There was the night he went bowling with friends, and as they went outside, “cops approached us and held shotguns to the back of our heads, thinking we were somebody else.” There was the night he was pulled over as he drove his friend home in his mom’s new SUV, and the cops told him, falsely, that it was a drug-trafficking area so they could pull over anyone who looked suspicious.
Now he’s dedicated his career to creating alternatives to criminalizing urban youths. And he volunteers in a local partnership with police to achieve that goal.
A few evenings a week, Mr. Lott and several dozen other Community Ambassadors with youth-outreach experience walk the streets to defuse tensions, and steer kids into productive channels instead of local precincts.
“There is a new culture shift, where [the police are acknowledging they] do have to do something differently … which has been remarkable.” Lott says. “I’ve never felt closer to police officers than I do now…. We’re developing relationships.”
In turn, St. Paul has witnessed significant declines in crimes and juvenile arrests.
It’s an example of what can happen when people push past fear and distrust to find solutions. And at the heart of it is an idea that many leaders and citizens have been calling for in the wake of recent fatal shootings by and of police: recognition of one another’s humanity.
“The kids are having less contact with the police … and the police are treating them more human; we humanized them. So it’s been a win-win,” says Community Ambassadors project manager Joel Franklin.
For the past two weeks, since Philando Castile was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in nearby Falcon Heights, St. Paul has been rocked by protests that have periodically turned violent. More than 100 protesters have been arrested so far. One faces felony charges and more than 50 have been charged with misdemeanors, including rioting, for blocking Interstate 94. Five police officers reportedly were injured when bottles and bricks were thrown at them.
But those involved with Community Ambassadors are quick to clarify that it was not St. Paul police who shot Mr. Castile. And while they call his death tragic and the national tension understandable, they say the unrest has been fueled by people from outside of St. Paul. For them, despite the headlines, the city remains an example of how progress is possible when a community and police and elected officials work together.
63 percent drop in juvenile arrests
St. Paul’s initiative started three years ago when then-Police Chief Thomas Smith saw a spike in complaints from businesses downtown about groups of idle teens hanging out in the summer, sometimes erupting in violence.
He contacted friends and community groups that helped raise money and recruit about 10 outreach workers to talk with the kids and connect them to more positive activities.
Downtown crime quickly dropped by about 40 percent, Mr. Franklin says.
Mayor Chris Coleman was impressed, and helped promote expansion of the initiative to about 30 ambassadors, the majority of them African-American men. They are paid a stipend, working in various parts of the city several afternoons and evenings a week.
In the first year, juvenile arrests were 63 percent lower than the year before at the locations and times the ambassadors were working. “We thought you couldn’t do much better, but we saw another 62 percent reduction last year,” Franklin says.
Lott describes a typical situation he might encounter in the west side neighborhood where he works at a school. A group of girls are on the brink of a fight, but he knows one of them so well, he can walk over and pull her out, causing the rest of the group to scatter. Back at school the next day, kids will tell Lott they saw a video of him breaking up the fight on YouTube or Facebook.
“That negative element is out there seeking to recruit them,” he says. “It’s nice that people are stationed in these streets now to recruit them to do more positive things or to intervene, because there’s that one situation that might lead you to getting a felony or some sort of record.’’
Because the ambassadors “are on the front end and can quell some of the discontent before it turns into violence … officers love the program,” says St. Paul Police spokesman Steve Linders.
But the changes didn’t happen automatically.
“When we first started, the police were a little skeptical about the ambassadors, and to be honest with you, a lot of the ambassadors were skeptical about the police,” Franklin says. Police “were looking at the ambassadors as getting in the way … or basically protecting the kids and not holding the kids accountable.
“But once they started working closely together,” he adds, “they developed a strong mutual appreciation for each other.”
The relationships were helped along by some “heart to heart” talks, and a training session about working with youths at the intersection of race and poverty, Franklin adds.
‘Now I’m not so scared’
On Thursday nights in the summer, the city holds cookouts and activities for youths and police in local parks. For children who’ve only ever heard horror stories, this is an opportunity where “police don’t have to be the bad guys, and now we’re bridging that gap,” Lott says.
The stronger ties also have helped Lott personally. “Now I’m not so scared. I know a few of these officers, I know their names…. It makes me feel more secure if I were to be pulled over.”
A negative narrative about African-Americans was dominant in St. Paul when Lott moved there as a middle-schooler, he says.
“The way the world perceives African-Americans, it’s like having to put my head down.” He decided to help other youths of color as a social worker and mentor because “when I had people who would talk to me and make me feel like a human, I was able to hold my head high for a few minutes.”
Speaking in Dallas Tuesday, President Obama urged Americans to empathize with such experiences. “Can we find the character, as Americans, to open our hearts to each other?… Can we see in each other a common humanity and a shared dignity, and recognize how our different experiences have shaped us?” he asked.
On Wednesday, Mayor Coleman and current Police Chief Todd Axtell were among the participants at a discussion with Mr. Obama about community policing.
Mr. Smith, who retired May after six years as police chief, says he often speaks to large audiences about how the city has made progress. “I challenge people to find another department that has so many programs to try to stop the problems of police-community poor relations and also address racial disparities,” he says.
But around the country, many police departments are trying to build better relationships and trust in the community. Here’s a sample of ongoing efforts shared at a national gathering last summer in Washington, hosted by the Police Executive Research Forum.
- In New Orleans, police officers are asked to put in “sweat equity” by participating in neighborhood efforts, whether it’s serving at a food pantry or planting trees.
- In Spokane, Wash., the Youth and Police Initiative brings officers and high school students together to break down stereotypes.
- In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., “Cops and Barbers” meetings bring young people and police together in local barbershops.
- Longmont, Colo., started a “Belonging Revolution” and the police chief asked a Latino councilman to walk with him through neighborhoods to translate as he talked with people who only spoke Spanish about their perceptions of police. He asked them if they feel a sense of belonging, gave them his card, and sometimes was invited back for lunch.
- In Oakland, Calif., black officers work with black middle school boys often targeted by gangs – offering tutoring and fun activities as an alternative.
Smith continues to raise money for the ambassadors, and his commitment stems in part from his own background growing up in St. Paul in a family that reflects the diversity of the city, blending black, white, Hispanic, and Native American heritage.
The “ambassador” approach also can work in schools, researchers say. For youths, when teachers “are more likely to view children’s humanity, that in turn leads children to feel more respect for them,” says Stanford researcher Jason Okonofua. He has contributed to experiments in which school suspension rates were cut in half when teachers were exposed to a more “empathic” mindset that encourages building relationships with students and working out problems rather than quickly resorting to punishment.
Chief Axtell has expanded community engagement efforts and the city council recently voted to put $150,000 toward the Community Ambassadors program, which supplements about $600,000 from foundations and other private sources.
For the past two weeks, and again this week, the Thursday night gatherings in St. Paul have been canceled because police officers have had to put in extra hours at area Black Lives Matter protests.
But at a regular Community Ambassadors meeting Wednesday, “the senior [police] command made it real, real clear… that they still are really committed to building a relationship with the community,” Franklin says.
• • •
Part 1: Beyond protests, St. Paul shows how police and community can find solutions
Part 2: Dallas PD's uncertain example on race and policing
Part 3: Behind racial tensions, a deeper problem: segregation