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.
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.
“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 Peace, NewCORE, 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.
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.
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.”
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.