Operation Conversation: Cops & Kids was developed by the All Stars Project in partnership with the NYPD and the Police Athletic League to combat the poor relationship between police and youth in New York City.
This effort, and similar efforts across, the city are sorely needed. In Harlem, our research found that many young people do not have a positive impression of the police. For example, at one police-community meeting facilitated by the Justice Center last year a shy 10-year old young lady from Taft Houses commented: "when I see the police I am afraid." Her statement led a local commanding officer to state, "I don't want you to be afraid when you see the police." The exchange highlights a dilemma many cops and kids face in Harlem: Improving public safety requires cops and youth to trust each other, but they often don't. The lack of trust and perceived illegitimacy of the police in the eyes of many young people operates like a virus infecting even youth who have no police contact with a pervasive sense that cops are not on their side. Some youth find the safety they need in a gang and through access to a gun.
All Stars Director, Dr. Lenoria Fulani, guided the conversation between the officers and young people for an audience that included 129 new police recruits and their commanders, community members and non-profit agency representatives. The hour-long conversation included some "warm up" activities at the start to reduce tension, a really good technique. This was followed by a series of questions posed by Dr. Fulani. One question, who has grown up with a father, was especially poignant. One young man and one officer were called to the front for an empathy exercise. The young man described to the officer what it was like for him growing up without a father. The officer was asked to empathize with him. He described how important his dad was in his life and acknowledged that the young man's mother must have done a " pretty good job" raising six kids.
Participants were encouraged to make statements, not direct questions to others. This approach lessened finger pointing. In the end, participants stood with their group and thank each other just like two college basketball teams at the end of a game. The event ended with a song from a local artist.
There is a need for efforts like this. Not just because it feels good to do it, but also democracy requires an educated citizenry and a transparent government. Cops have a responsibility to educate the communities they serve about the work they do. Young people also have a duty to their community that includes getting educated and helping their peers to do the right thing. Last night's conversation didn't solve police misconduct, youth violence, poverty and racism, but it is hard to imagine any solution to these challenges without dialogue.