How do you get young people and police to open up and talk to each other?
With a conversation on race and policing taking center stage in the nation, a group of volunteers in Everett decided they had to do something. They wanted to start a dialogue between police officers and young people that would lead to a better understanding.
“We wanted to create a safe space where you could say anything and not fear repercussion,” says Patrick Johnston, a Boys & Girls Club volunteer and member of the Everett police force. “We wanted to give kids an opportunity to talk about whatever was troubling them.”
Jaime Lederer, coordinator of the Everett Community Health Partnership’s Substance Abuse Coalition, facilitated the meeting. About 50 teens from two groups—the Everett Teen Center and Teens in Everett Against Substance Abuse—agreed to participate.
They met with six officers, as well as Police Chief Steven Mazzie, at the Everett Teen Center. Lederer advises the police in advance, “It’s not going to be talking to them; it’s going to be talking with them.”
Sitting in a big circle, everyone was asked as a warm-up question to introduce themselves and describe Everett in one word. Some of the offerings: friendly, diverse, proud, football, small, home.
Participants then were asked to get together with others in the room with whom they shared something in common, whether a favorite sports team or a birthday. It was a way to connect and find similarities, Lederer explained, on a most basic level.
Next, each officer rotated around smaller discussion groups with five teens each, as they shared thoughts and concerns around questions like:
Talk about the neighborhood where you grew up and your earliest memories? Talk about where you see yourself in five years? Talk about your hopes and concerns for Everett in five years?
By the end, each officer had interacted with every teen. This process built a baseline of trust and allowed each group—officers and youth—to see each other as fellow Everett residents with more in common than they might have thought.
Only then did participants gather as a large group for further discussion. That’s when the questions became more pointed. Why do you kick us out of the park at night if we’re just sitting on a park bench? Why can’t you approach us in a more friendly way if we’re not doing anything wrong?
Officers spoke candidly about difficult cases, such as when people resist arrest. They admitted that even officers feel fear from time to time. They advised teens that the worst thing was to run away when stopped by an officer. They asked questions, too, such as whether there were places in Everett where they did not feel safe.
Mazzie says the exchanges were important and revelatory. “The problem is when those conversations don't take place, and they don't get to see the human behind the uniform. That's when a lot of misperceptions take place.”
The Teen Center held another meeting two months later. The hope is to continue holding these dialogues, says Lederer.
“We’ve started a conversation where particularly for youth, they feel they can talk about race and the concerns they have and interact with adults in a different way.”