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.

Hooping for hope

PHILADELPHIA — Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Mo. Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Eric Garner in New York City. Victor Ortega in San Diego. Dillon Taylor in Salt Lake City. Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. Brandon Tate-Brown in Philadelphia. Now, most recently, Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

Incidents of officer-involved shootings — particularly those resulting in the deaths of men of color — have drawn headlines and further frayed relations with many of the communities they are sworn to protect and serve. In some cases, retaliatory violence has erupted, leaving everyone from students to lawmakers on edge. That has been true in Philadelphia as well, where Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey requested a federal review a spate of officer-involved shootings, to help separate fact from fiction and push for more transparency.

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Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel leans into a conversation with young people at the Wright Rec Center in West Philadelphia.

Bridging the chasms caused by these realities has even greater importance — which is why PCHR has been front and center in crafting new partnerships to help create new narratives and outcomes. Veteran PCHR community relations representative Patricia Coyne took an active role in the diverse coalition that’s charting a new way for Philadelphia.

And the coalition chose a familiar entry point for the stakeholders involved — a neighborhood basketball game.

Some 150 people poured into Mantua’s James Wright Recreation Center on May 4 to inaugurate this police-community youth basketball conversation series — Speak Up, Lace ‘Em Up.

An assembled team of players from the ranks of the Philadelphia Police Department and Drexel University’s police department played with an assembly of neighborhood players for good-natured fun. But instead of just a late afternoon of hooping and snacking, the assortment of young men, police, community members and volunteers also came together for facilitated discussions about what is happening in the streets and how that plays out in their lives — among their peers, family and each other. They swapped stories of growing up, of understanding the roles of police in community and responded frank questions from one another.

Tierra Thompson and Ezekiel Mathur, PCHR community relations team members, along with Commissioner Saadiq Jabbar Garner, also were on hand.

The talks, like checking out each other’s sweet moves, began the process of transformation, from wary strangers to interested partners. The goal: to help diffuse simmering antagonism by showing people on each side their common humanity.

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(l.-r.) Event organizers Patricia Coyne, John Leatherberry, chair, 16th Police District Advisory Council, 16th District Capt. Altovise Love-Craighead, and Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel.

“There are police-community/youth, top down, institutionally-controlled stuff happening these days, but this is not that,” Coyne said. “This is a bottom-up, grassroots effort that engages communities on their terms, on their turf.”

The lead engineers that constructed the framework for these interactions included Weekend of PeaceNewCORE, the Philadelphia Youth Commission, the Philadelphia Youth Network, the Philadelphia Police Department and the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission. They combined NewCORE’s conversation model and adapted elements of the Weekend of Peace’s successful efforts.

For a dozen years, the Weekend of Peace — free July games and entertainment spearheaded by Malik and Calvin Johnson and organized by community volunteers — has promoted a violence-free zone for children and families, presented via participating recreation centers across the city. Last year, that included 22 rec centers, and this year that number is expected to rise. Coyne said these newly debuted civic conversations both will provide a bridge for greater participation in the Weekend of Peace and bolster relations among parties that are too often unfamiliar with each other.

Lt. Kenora Scott looks over the action as Rev. George Clark, a referee, chats with 16th District Capt. Altovise Love-Craighead. In addition to offering those services, Clark also seeks to train young people to be referees.

Lt. Kenora Scott looks over the action as Rev. George Clark, a referee, chats with 16th District Capt. Altovise Love-Craighead. In addition to offering those services, Clark also seeks to train young people to be referees.

The series, in essence, is a continuation of the theme of instituting harmony that’s integral to PCHR’s mission.

“This is the vehicle to get the people most directly affected to not only interact in a positive way, but to also reveal points of view and experiences they otherwise might be reluctant to do in any other type of forum,” PCHR Commissioner Marshall E. Freeman.

These conversation will help provide a way for residents who don’t always have a seat at the table to help shape ideas, recommendations and local actions expected from two seminal reports focusing on improved policing in Philadelphia, that of the U.S. Department of Justice on officer-involved shootings and findings from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Claiming a stake in the eventual outcomes in Philadelphia is essential for the city to fully move forward, Freeman said.

“The commission is the linchpin in that, to help protect people’s rights and be proactive to do all that we can to mitigate situations like ones we’ve seen across the country,” he added.

There is no quick fix for improving the relationship between law enforcement and the neighborhoods usually most in need of its service, the ones most often beset by poverty and crime. But there certainly are many hands on deck to work toward solutions.

Officer Lamar Wilkerson exchanges ideas with a youthful player at the Wright Rec Center.

Officer Lamar Wilkerson exchanges ideas with a youthful player at the Wright Rec Center.

The U.S. Justice Department now is investigating how to swiftly implement reform efforts nationwide that may save lives as well as bring back balance to a relationship that has been stressed by the burden of history, bias, poverty and crime. Commissioner Ramsey has pledged to implement recommendations offered in the report by the national task force, which he co-chaired.

Rebuilding trust takes time. It’s a process underway, starting one hoop at a time, in places such as Wright Rec, in cities such as Philadelphia, with guidance from entities such as PCHR.

“Our communities are full of tremendous resources that can be overlooked, and too often are,” Coyne said. “There are big iniatives that come up from upon high, but sometimes those are unsustainable at the community-level. That’s the point of this. What can we do at the community level to engage with the police in a mutually positive, productive, and lasting manner and strengthen our community partnerships?  We’re addressing just this.”

PCHR Commissioner Marshall E. Freeman proves he still has a few moves.

PCHR Commissioner Marshall E. Freeman proves he still has a few moves.

One tangible takeaway for which this coalition is aiming to insert more youthful voices in existing avenues where law enforcement and community interactions, such as the city’s police district advisory councils (PDACs) and the youth aid panels powered by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office. By expanding and using these exchange opportunities, there’s a better chance to create more consistent and effective communications where it matters most, and increasing understanding and reducing mistrust in the process.

Additional planning for the series is under way. Interested in getting involved or learning more? Click here to get started.

Click here to watch a related report on CBS3.

Focusing on Ferguson

It’s hard to absolutely declare which was the most disturbing component of the unrest the world witnessed in Ferguson, Mo., a hamlet north of Saint Louis. That national tragedy served as the subtext for a digital town hall hosted Monday by Clear Channel Philadelphia, where an intimate gathering of some 30 people of various ages and backgrounds came to discuss Ferguson and its aftermath.

PCHR was among the participants, with a delegation including Commissioners Marshall E. Freeman and Saadiq Jabbar Garner and PCHR Executive Director Rue Landau.

Ferguson town hall panel

A set of activists and civic leaders gathered for a town hall meeting sponsored by Clear Channel Philadelphia. (l-r) Allison Pokras, executive director of Operation Understanding; author and journalist Solomon Jones; PCHR’s Rue Landau; educational consultant Andrea Lawful-Trainer; Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel; and the Rev. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. Loraine Ballard Morrill moderated.

In addition to Landau, the panel opening the dialogue featured Allison Pokras, executive director of Operation Understanding; author and journalist Solomon Jones; educational consultant Andrea Lawful-Trainer; Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel; and the Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller, senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. Veteran public affairs director Loraine Ballard Morrill moderated the hour-long discussion that drew insights not just from panelists, but also an array of students, parents, law enforcement officers, educators and activists.

“What we saw in Ferguson is not indicative of what we see in policing,” said Bethel, who came to the discussion flanked with a multi-hued set of officers. “What has to happen from this conversation is a continuous dialogue. We have a responsibility to get out in the community and touch people in a positive way.”

The town hall streamed live from 4 to 5 p.m. on three web sites – WDASFM.com, Power99.com and MixPhiladelphia.com. Excerpts also will be featured on all six Clear Channel Philadelphia stations on Sunday morning, beginning at 6 a.m.

Different events in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death under questionable circumstances have sparked anxieties. For some, the trigger was the prospect of an unarmed citizen being gunned down in the street and his body left to lay uncovered in a pool of his own blood. For others, it was the allegation that an unruly 18-year-old willingly charged an officer.

Still, for many Americans and those who look to this nation as a model democracy, visuals of police in tanks brandishing tear gas, rubber bullets and sound cannons against peaceful protestors coupled with those of people stripping area stores of their goods shook confidences.

Had the officer in question simply had been arrested after the shooting incident, there would be less room to question the motives or actions afterwards, said the Rev. Jacobus Nomdoe, a pastor visiting from South Africa. He said perceptions of a justice system stacked against black people is a familiar topic, and it was disappointing to see America follow a path that he and people in his country proved years ago had no good end.

“If he had been arrested, there would have been some kind of peace,” Nomdoe said. “If the process had started, on that day. It didn’t.”

Scenes from Ferguson, MO. Photo courtesy: Michael B. Thomas, Agency France Presse.

Scenes from Ferguson, MO. Photo courtesy: Michael B. Thomas, Agency France Presse.

That was at the heart of the frustration and disgust high school students in the audience expressed.

Some recounted daily brushes with prejudice and racism, especially those who live and attend school in predominantly white areas. They said they now feel less confident that justice would prevail if they found themselves in similar circumstances as Michael Brown – citing incidents such as the Trayvon Martin slaying, the death of Eric Garner in New York City and other reports of deaths involving unarmed black men and police.

Chiquilla M. Holt, a mother of two teens, said she understood their apprehensions.

“The fear that they are expressing is real,” Holt said. “As black people, we have to prove we’re OK. You have to prove you’re not a thug, that you’re not a threat. We can’t escape it.

“So there’s a fear of excessive force, that any kind of interaction with the police can lead to being killed,” she said. “White people don’t have that fear because they will be given the benefit of the doubt.”

They were all cautioned by the panelists against hopelessness and bitterness. Instead, they were told to seek allies, white and otherwise.  Lawful-Trainer, for instance, said she joined in public conversations with young people, their parents and police in Abington, all of whom had concerns in wake of the Brown shooting. Alongside fellow civic leaders such as Jana Mallis of the Willow Grove NAACP, insightful exchanges are beginning.

“A lot of times you have allies in the room, but they are not sure what to say, so they stay quietly in the corner, not sure how they will be perceived,” Lawful-Trainer said. “You have to think about how you can get support. And we have to find a solution that will make young people feel safe.”

Philadelphia, with its history of being first-in-the-nation on so many fronts, could lead that charge and that change, Commissioner Garner told the assembled.

But that will require uncomfortable conversations to ensue, beyond the latest tragedy, the panel said.

Scary scenes from Ferguson. Photo courtesy Agency France Presse.

Scary scenes from Ferguson. Photo courtesy Agency France Presse.

Ferguson has sparked a series of public and private musings on race-based fears, economic inequality, responsible citizenship and law enforcement.  Sustained change means unpacking the hows and whys behind the distrust and dissatisfaction that could lead to such civil disturbance. And that requires honest introspection and preventative investment, Waller said. He paraphrased an observation of writer and philosopher Victor Hugo:

Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing instruction for all, and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.

“If brave people in power made the right decisions on the day of that event,” Waller said, “we may not have seen the violence that we saw.

“If we are going to fix this, we all in this community are going to have to take pieces of it, because we are all guilty of a Ferguson or the potential of a Ferguson, in an Abington or in a Lower Merion,” he said.

And active participation of white men in such action is critical, Waller added. Recent polling about the Brown incident shows a considerable chasm in opinion, breaking down largely on racial lines.

Rue Landau echoed the call for fuller engagement.

Getting to the heart of this matter would mean creating models for preventing negative interactions with other groups – whether stemming from bias based on language, disability – especially among the deaf and those struggling with seizures – or gender identity.

Commissioner Freeman shares closing thoughts with Loraine Ballard Morrill.

Commissioner Freeman shares closing thoughts with Loraine Ballard Morrill.

While any group could fill in the blank of the persecuted or abused, the Ferguson case reflects a Ground Zero. At its heart was an all-too familiar and unresolved American binary antagonism of black vs. white, she said.

“I’d like to call on people for individual accountability, that white people have to speak up, to stand up, to call out people on their racism and to actually use their power to make change as well,” Landau said. “Nothing is going to change until we all take steps moving forward. It’s been 50 years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

“We should be further than we are now. We’ve made great moves and great strides, but we still have so much farther to go.”

A police perspective

PCHR often gathers insights from a host of partners all focused on the same goal — strengthening the quality of life and opportunity for every Philadelphia resident. In fact, it hosts a monthly Interagency Civil Rights Task Force to help vet issues and guide policy proposals. The task force, made up of  local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and community advocates, works to prevent inter-group tensions and bias crimes throughout Philadelphia by exchanging information and coordinating responses to incidents and crimes.

Dep. Comm. Kevin J. Bethel

Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel joins the discussion at the PCHR Interagency Civil Rights Task Force at its April meeting.

The April meeting table included familiar faces in this effort, such as U.S. Attorney Robert Reed, Jorge Tuddon of the Consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia, Kelvin Anderson of the Philadelphia Police Department Advisory Commission, Kathleen Kaderbek of the FBI and Ryan Tack-Hooper of CAIR Philadelphia, among others. It also featured a new one: Deputy Commissioner Kevin J. Bethel of the Philadelphia Police Department.

He gave an overview of the latest policies on interviews, arrests and interrogations as well as thoughts on curbing the school-to-prison pipeline that sees countless young people — largely of color — forfeit their futures before they even begin.

Bethel and the group exchanged anecdotes, dispelling myths and taking notes on how to further improve systems, especially when it comes to perceptions among residents, such as racial profiling and language access concerns.

He welcomed the conversation and ensured everyone in the room that his word is bond, freely sharing his contact details so that a continuous exchange happens beyond this one meeting.

“Talk is good,” Bethel said. “But we need to put action steps in place.”