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.

PCHR urges introspection and action following racially-charged responses to officer-involved deaths

The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations issued the following statement responding to the ongoing discord following grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.

Officer-involved slayings of civilians should always provoke alarm, introspection and considered action, because if mishandled, the repercussions and damage to public credibility stand to be great. Likewise, the great American right to peaceably assemble and petition grievances is a sacred one that should be respected.

In recent weeks, two highly publicized cases involving police and the deaths of young, unarmed African-American men concluded with results that have threatened the sense of fairness and harmony among many, locally and nationally. Equally troubling is the twinned and expressed level of indifference and sometimes hostility toward those upset by these decisions. Together, they dampen the feel of racial progress and justice, even 50 years after major civil rights battles were waged and won.

In order for true progress to continue, we must recognize and work to correct conditions that undercut our long held values such as equal protection under the law. Ignoring or dismissing these concerns does little but to foment resentment and frustration, which often devolves into violent outbursts, advancing little. This is the time that we need to come together, to both actively listen and collectively work on solutions.

Everyone has a role to play, be it in confronting our own biases, speaking out with respectful defense of others or pushing to change institutional policies and practices that perpetuate inequality – ranging from lopsided resources for public schools to using criminal records or credit scores as barriers to jobs or housing. We cannot truly thrive until every aspect of our society is afforded equal opportunity – and that includes treatment by public safety officers and our criminal justice system. That is work to which this commission is committed.

We must show the people of this city, of this nation – particularly young people – that their lives matter, that all lives matter. Our actions must reflect a belief that there is hope for the future. Because there is.

Established in 1951, PCHR enforces civil rights laws and helps to diffuse inter-group conflict within the city.

Bringing African Americans to the table to talk about race

NewCORE – New Conversations on Race and Ethnicity – came together six years ago with a broad but essential mandate: use faith leaders as guides for Philadelphians wading through and seeking to strengthen race relations.

Yesterday, at Prince of Peace Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, NewCORE launched We Need to Talk, a series of neighborhood sessions where African Americans can examine their experiences with race in intimate dialogue with neighbors and strangers. The group laid a framework for this series last month, when Mayor Michael A. Nutter and a host of other prominent African Americans offered intimate glimpses through their lens of race  and become unofficial ambassadors for the movement.

The talks are designed to explore issues of pain, challenges and hopes in a neutral space, without the pressure of the latest news cycle pressing buttons and pressure points.

That good intention fell aside somewhat in the wake of the Ferguson decision, though, when a mostly white grand jury opted not to indict a white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in the St. Louis suburb.

Officer Darren Wilson claimed Michael Brown Jr. had attacked him and that he feared for his life; some witness accounts said Brown had his hands up and was shot anyway.

The chain of ensuing events, from leaving the teenager’s bleeding body in the street uncovered for hours to the reaction by police officials in the early days of the summer shooting sparked unrest in Ferguson and solidarity protests across the United States, including in Philadelphia, before and after the grand jury decision.

The officer since has resigned and President Obama just created a task force to delve into the persistent issue of mistrust between area police and communities of color, as well as the increased militarization of police departments. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey will serve as co-lead of that task force.

Images of officers in Missouri in full-on battle gear and weaponry ignited widespread condemnation, foreign and domestic.

More than anything, Ferguson reignited urgent questions about racial perceptions and realities, in some instances creating bright lines that seem intractable. NewCORE seeks to play a role in easing people toward greater understanding, with an eye to the long view on race and intergroup harmony.table

Still, engaging any conversation about race, regardless of the participants, can be a tricky enterprise, which is why NewCORE organizers want to cultivate organic, thoughtful and personal exchanges.

Rather than big summits and television cameras, they’re opting to spur intimate “storytelling table conversation,” said the Rev. Steven Lawrence, a minister at White Rock Baptist Church and a leader in the NewCORE movement.

We Need to Talk will pick back up Wednesday, Dec. 10, at Caanan Baptist Church in Northwest Philadelphia, with the series continuing across the city through December 17. Attendees are to center their discussions on personal experiences with pain, challenge and hope as they relate to race relations.

“We want the conversations in each location to be vital and relevant for those neighbors, so we expect there will be a great variety of topics discussed,” Lawrence said.

That has been the case since he and other faith leaders responded to came shortly after the inspiring 2008 address by then-candidate Barack Obama, A More Perfect Union. In the heady days after the frank and critically acclaimed treatise on the persistent American dilemma of race, the mayor challenged local leaders to keep the energy alive by establishing safe spaces for open, honest dialogue.

While this latest series is geared toward African Americans, the work of NewCORE typically has had wide and diverse reach, having held events at the National Museum of American Jewish History and a mosque in Villanova, as examples.

Rather than try to engineer outcomes, NewCORE remains focused on starting and cultivating safe conversations.

“We have found that people are tired of settings based on talking, but not listening,” Lawrence said. “People are hungering for sincere conversation. Once that happens, people want more.

“Ongoing conversation is a great way to discover what a community can do together. We want to encourage the conversation.”

We Need to Talk: Our Pain, Our Challenges, Our Hopes
Upcoming neighborhood sessions. Registration is requested.

Northwest Philadelphia
Wednesday, Dec. 10
6-8:30 p.m.
Canaan Baptist Church
5430 Pulaski Ave.
Register

West Philadelphia
Saturday, Dec. 13
12-2:30 p.m.
White Rock Baptist Church
5240 Chestnut St.
Register

Wednesday, Dec. 17
6-8:30 p.m.
Quba Masjid
4637 Lancaster Ave.
Register

South Philadelphia
Monday, Dec. 15
6-8:30 p.m.
Church of the Redeemer Baptist
1440 S. 24th St.
Register

Southwest Philadelphia
Tuesday, Dec. 16
6-8:30 p.m.
St. Paul AME Church
8398 Lindbergh Blvd.
Register

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.”