Securing Our Future: Forging partnerships, tackling community-police relations, building leaders

PHILADELPHIA – With recent federal reviews on controversial interactions between police and residents leading the city to explore reforms, a set of younger Philadelphians recently committed to insert their voices into the mix.

On Wednesday, they helped drive that discussion, presenting their own report on improving community-police relations to higher-ups in the Nutter Administration, the Philadelphia Police Department and a selection of its rank-and-file.

Securing Our Future: Re-imagining Philadelphia’s Community-Police Relations condensed the thoughts of some 200 young people and their advocates who the week before had brainstormed ways of changing perceptions and realities on both sides of the badge.

Police, policymakers and young Philadelphians assembled at City Hall gathered to speak frankly about ways to improve relations between communities and police as part of the Securing Our Future initiative.

Police, policymakers and young Philadelphians assembled at City Hall gathered to speak frankly about ways to improve relations between communities and police as part of the Securing Our Future initiative.

“Both the young people and the police appreciated the opportunity to speak candidly with each other about the current state of police-community relations and how they can work to improve them,” said PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau.  “It was a huge success.”

Securing Our Future arose from efforts by PCHR, the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission, My Brother’s Keeper Philadelphia and the Mayor’s Office on Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs.

The meeting at City Hall followed a half-day session the week before at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Drawing participants – diverse in age, ability, gender and education – from across the city, the hours of moderated conversations supplied the meat for this report. African Americans made up the majority of those in the room, much like they do the statistics concerning police interactions.

For their part, officials on hand said they got and understood the message presented.

“This conversation is as good, if not better than, many of the conversations we’ve been having with adults. Nothing in this report surprised me,” Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel told the participants assembled in the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall. “You hit the mark, and I’m so phenomenally proud of you, that you would take the thoughtful time to put words down so we can move them to action.”

Among the findings:

  • Few experience interactions with police that extend beyond law enforcement, and when that happens, it tends to be skewed more toward males and not inclusive of young women
  • They reported feeling that police use their position as people in uniform to intimidate, and that fear, mistrust and a lack of communications between both sides add to tensions
  • Media, music and news reports are cited as contributors to negative narratives and stereotypes, of them and police
  • Most agreed that improving service delivery, eliminating biases, improving cultural understanding and being engaged in the communities served would lead to success

Read the full interim report here.

These insights provide context, considering the demographics behind altercations that tend to stir the tensions that have bubbled to the forefront as of late.  The Police Advisory Commission reports that African-American males make up nearly 2 in 5 shooting victims, almost 1 in 4 murder victims and more than 1 in 3 murder offenders. Likewise, suspects in officer-involved shootings tend to be significantly younger than the average officer, with some 1 in 3 suspects being between age 18 and 23.

Those numbers can translate into misperceptions, if not unfortunate action.

In this age of social media, national incidents of police misconduct circulate at a faster pace than ever, fueling already existing suspicions.  News from McKinney, Texas to Baltimore to Ferguson, Mo. has done little to reassure young people that protecting and serving is the primary purpose of policing, students reported.

The Philadelphia Police Department already is in the midst of reviewing and revamping its policies as a result of two recent landmark reports – one from the U.S. Department of Justice on officer-involved shootings and the other from the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Since statistics show young people, especially males of color, are likeliest to be involved in encounters with the police, those engaged in this initiative hope to impact that broader discussion.

“We spend a tremendous amount of effort reacting to negative encounters with police, instead of building opportunities for positive ones,” said Kelvyn Anderson, executive director of the Police Advisory Commission. “Building trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve means dismantling stereotypes that prevent honest communication.”

Greg Brewer, an 18-year-old South Philadelphia resident who attends YouthBuild Charter School, said his previous interactions with police mostly were limited to a “good morning” or “hello.” That didn’t dampen his hope that something better could be established.

“After the meeting, I walked away thinking and knowing a change will be made in our society,” Brewer said. “We sat together and showed our feelings toward each other, and our humanity. It wasn’t just police versus community, but peer-to-peer, person to person.”

Bethel’s announcement that the department would be assembling youth panels throughout the city as sounding boards for police districts thrilled Brewer, as it did his fellow ambassadors. But the follow through will be the real determining factor, said Nadiyah Young, a 23-year-old from Logan.

“Not seeing any changes would be a turn off,” Young said. “I have hope for the future; I just want what we discussed to be implemented.”

In the months to come, PCHR and its partners will be helping to create guidelines and support materials for schools and communities to hold similar conversations.

“It was really hope-inspiring to see and hear a more productive and respectful dialogue regarding police and community,” said Deputy Director Randy Duque. “There was a deeper interest in listening to and understanding the needs of the youth. And it was exciting to hear how much young people and police officers wanted more dialogues like we assembled.”

For Greg, Nadiyah and all the young people who participated in this process and for those who live in the city, it is essential for this progress to continue. They expect — and deserve — no less, said Everett Gillison, Mayor Nutter’s chief of staff.

“This is a dialogue,” Gillison said. “This is not just a one-and-done.”

Watch the videos.

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