Could Boston offer a model for police-minority relations?

Despite a history of racial tensions, Boston has escaped a lot of the turmoil that has roiled other US cities. That's thanks in part to long-term community relationships, both police officers and minority residents say.

Josh Kenworthy/The Christian Science Monitor
Boston Police Department Deputy Superintendent Joseph Harris (l.) and Superintendent Bernard O'Rourke talk with children in Dudley Square Aug. 5, ahead of a peace walk organized by Twelfth Baptist Church.

Dorchester teen Taya Hopkins recently met the police officer who arrested her 18-year-old brother.

Against her advice, her brother and his friends were playing outside with fake guns. Someone called the police, and upon arriving, an officer drew his gun. He lowered it when the teens dropped the pretend guns and he saw they were no threat, she says. He also spoke to them respectfully.

“I thanked the officer, because I’ve seen how this incident could end up very different…. My brother is still alive because officers saw my brother and his friends as just teenage boys being dumb instead of as dangerous colored youth,” Taya said at a recent police-community summit where she performed with Code Listen. The band, which was formed this summer, is made up of minority teens and members of the Boston Police Department who collaborated in depth to compose their own songs.

Through such dialogue, Taya says, she could see “the human behind the badge,” and the police officers could “see beyond the label – ‘black, female, Dorchester’ – and see me as a leader.”

National tragedies – from Ferguson to Baton Rouge, from the killing of Philando Castile in Minnesota to the assassination of Dallas police – formed the backdrop for the conversation at the summit in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood Aug. 4. But for many participants, those flashpoints stood in stark contrast to the long-term community relationships that have been forged in Boston. Their stories also spoke to the work it takes on both sides to be willing to look beyond ingrained stereotypes.

Despite a history of racial tensions here, the city has remained relatively calm. And unlike such cities as Chicago and Baltimore, which have seen a spike in violent crime, Boston saw its crime rate  drop another 15 percent over the past 18 months. The city’s arrest rate dropped 28 percent.

While no one believes Boston’s work is done, law enforcement experts say, its approach could offer lessons to other police departments beginning their own work on repairing relationships with minority residents.

Because of the reservoir of goodwill, when a situation goes bad in Boston, “it’s not likely we’re going have people take to the streets and have ongoing, months-long sustained protests that are indicative of a palpable tension between police and members of the community,” says Tom Nolan, a criminology professor at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., and a former Boston police lieutenant.

But officials say it’s not a time for the city to rest on its laurels, either. “It’s important to continue to work at it every day,” Mayor Marty Walsh told the Monitor just before the start of the event, hosted by the youth advocacy group Teen Empowerment at the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry. “We haven’t seen what’s happened in other cities, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune to it.”

Code Listen

Code Listen is the creation of Shaw Pong Liu, who won a six-month artist-in-residence grant and spent several months doing ride-alongs with officers and leading impromptu jam sessions during lunch breaks before bringing the police and teens together.

Sitting down with police is not something many urban teens want to do at first, says Sheri Bridgeman, Teen Empowerment’s director of Boston programs. “We set up a safe environment.”

Teenager Oduagbon “Dante” Omorgobe, whose childhood was characterized by neglect and criminality, wasn't so sure the first time he participated this summer. “I wasn’t too fond of the idea, but by the end … [I realized] that police have a tough, tough job and we as a community should recognize that, just like we want them to recognize our circumstances,” he says.

Josh Kenworthy/The Christian Science Monitor
Boston Police Officer Steve Collette (r.), Taya Hopkins (c.), and other members of Code Listen, a youth and police band, at the Teen Empowerment Community-Police Summit in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood Aug. 5.

During an hours-long workshop for Code Listen, Ms. Liu recalls, “one of the officers got a little choked up talking about something personal, and a bunch of the youth went to give her a hug.” At the end, “at least three of the young women shared that it was a really big deal for them to see a police officer shed tears,” because it showed them that police feel emotions, she says. The police also relate to the struggles the teens are going through and offer tangible support, such as clothes for one of the youths who was homeless.

Steve Collette, a white policeman formerly stationed in Roxbury, plays a guitar with a bright yellow strap adorned with the words “crime scene.”

“I think me being there for them really means a lot to them,” he says. “But it actually makes me feel good as well…. There’s a lot to take in, a lot of stories.”

Chris, an older teen who requested that his last name not be used, says that with Officer Collette and the other police in Code Listen, “I know that I’ll be heard and I can take every feedback that they are giving me.”

Chris hopes that the group, by “making incredible music, will influence the young people in the community to open up and not feel scared … like the police is attacking them, which they’re not.”

Raynise Charles, a 15-year-old singer in Code Listen, says the teens saw police differently from Day 1 of the project.“They didn’t even come in police gear. We’re like, ‘You’re police?’ and he’s like, ‘I’m a detective for 18 years,’… We just saw each other as people, so it was really fun.”

From community walks to ice cream trucks

Code Listen is just one more example of how Boston police “haven’t shied away from … considering new means to engage the community, and … a lot of cities across the country would do well to take a lesson from this playbook,” Professor Nolan says.

“They’ve still got a considerable amount of work to do,” he adds. The police force is majority white in a city where the majority of residents are people of color, he says. And the police union has been resisting body cameras, while activists in the community have been pushing for them.

Nolan isn’t too impressed with the police ice cream truck, which officers drive around to hand out free ice cream to kids. “It’s a feel-good thing,” he says.

But that effort doesn’t stoke the type of criticism that came in reaction to Halifax, Va., officers who were recently stopping drivers, making them think the stop was serious before handing them free ice cream. A video – of a black woman nervously speaking to an officer and then laughing with an extreme sense of relief once the ice cream appeared – went viral last week, with some commentators scolding what they saw as a tone-deaf and dangerous gimmick.

“To the untrained eye and ear, the black woman captured in the video sounded full of joy. But to black people everywhere, we know what loud, uncontrollable relief looks and sounds like.… That relief that forces you to laugh because you haven’t had the space to cry just yet. That relief every time we interact with police officers because we never know if we will leave that interaction alive,” wrote Preston Mitchum in The Root.

Nolan has heard of similar efforts and says, “It really is a questionable practice.… I was a cop for 27 years and if I get stopped, I’m going to be anxious about it.”

For her part, Liu doesn’t want Code Listen to be reduced to “just a reassuring image of young people and officers making music together.

“The focus is … intimate conversations with one another,” she says. “These issues are really big and what I’m hoping to do is to encourage more dialogue.”

A new set of teens and officers will be collaborating to make music in the coming weeks.

At the summit, the audience heard from teen Carrie Mays about how “heartbroken” she was when she watched the video in which Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, tried to reassure her daughter, who was in the back seat when he was shot by police. She “called the little girl ‘Dae Dae,’ and right there a piece of myself was ripped from my heart, because my nickname is ‘Dayday.’ ”

Organizers asked participants to sign a 10-point community agreement that reads in part, “We, the undersigned, are ready, willing and able to work together to protect the right of community, youth and police to be treated with respect.”

In one song, Taya gives melody to a question that resonates with anyone concerned about the state of police-community relations: “Where do we go from here?” She rounds out the lilting chorus with a plea: “Don’t lose your patience. We all get frustrated.”

Oduey Uga, a 12th -grader with Teen Empowerment, says hopefully the band “represents that cops and children in my community can really have relationships. So if they can, why can’t adults?”

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