One tenet of law enforcement that can never be forgotten is that the authority of the police officer to enforce the law is granted by our collective society. Checks and balances on that authority are in place, for sure, but different subcultures of our society often experience police interactions very differently. An episode from the HBO TV series VICE titled "Black and Blue" examined the relationships between police and the community since the Ferguson riots two years ago.
To sum up their findings, the relationships between police officers and many communities of color remain strained. Police shootings of African-Americans and attacks on police officers continued to be a problem throughout 2016.
While working for my former agency, I had the pleasure to meet Jason Lehman, who interned with my squad while completing his criminology degree at the University of South Florida. Jason then returned to his home state of California, became a police officer with Long Beach PD, and founded the community policing group Why'd You Stop Me (WYSM, pronounced Wizz-em).
WYSM's approach has been to reach out to inner-city youth and try to bridge the gap between police officers and the community by providing empowerment education. In addition, WYSM has also trained police officers on better techniques to interact with the citizens they serve. For Jason, it has been a personal journey.
In December, 2011 with six years on the job while working in a gang suppression unit in Long Beach, Lehman learned that he had been targeted to be killed in an ambush by gang members. Lehman and his team considered how to respond. Of course, their first plan was to identify all the members and hit back hard in a "scorched earth" approach of parole searches and probation sweeps. Lehman knew that would only be a temporary solution to the problem, as a roundup would only put off the threat to another day when they might not be able to develop the same intelligence to prevent the attack.
Instead, Lehman walked into a classroom at a high school where he knew there was a concentration of the gang members. He had an open conversation with the entire room about the fears that police officers face every day when they contact people. Lehman told them about the training he received throughout the academy and in roll call showing officers getting ambushed by suspects, and how perception equals reality.
Several of the teenagers in the room, including identified gang members, admitted that they had a similar perception of police officers killing people like them. Lehman found common ground.
As he left the room, the school principal stopped him and asked him what the name of his program was. Lehman thought about this question, then answered, "These kids seemed to really be concerned about WHY they were getting stopped, so let's call it 'Why'd You Stop Me?'" The name stuck and is now the thriving nonprofit that has provided educational presentations to more than 20 cities across five states.
Lehman's message quickly spread among seven other high schools in the Long Beach area, and WYSM was born. Lehman began to coordinate presentations with police officers and community members standing side by side to hash out their concerns.
David Thornton is an OpsLens Contributor and retired law enforcement officer.
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