COLUMBIA — In a new program that aims to teach at-risk youth how to interact with police, young men and women trade places with officers from the Columbia Police Department — and the other way around.
"Deal With It", based on an Allstate Insurance program, is "a chance for (youth) to be heard, for us to be heard and for them to understand why we do what we do,” Deputy Police Chief Tom Dresner said.
A number of police officers and a group of at-risk youth from Columbia Builds Youth, a trade and education program that gives people who are 16 to 24 years old experience in construction work, attended the first session July 8 at Hickman High School. A group of children ages 9 to 14 from the Imani Mission Center also attended. Police didn't publicize the event at the time, so it wouldn't be perceived as a public relations stunt, Dresner said.
During the session, officers talked about the rights police have, the rights citizens have and the recourse the latter have when police cross the line, said Lt. Scott Young, who participated in the session.
"We haven't done a good job of explaining the Constitution to our children," Young said. And when children aren't brought up with a sense of police as being helpful, the potential for misunderstanding is huge, he said.
Young said the youth who participated had a lot of tough questions for officers and expressed some anger about what they have seen and experienced themselves. But the sessions was "very productive," Young said, "in both directions."
In a bit of role-playing, police allowed one young man to take on the role of a police officer. After being outfitted with a uniform and a plastic gun, Carvin Jones was told to approach a female officer posing as a citizen. The female officer didn’t comply with his instructions, and Jones drew his gun from its holster.
"She wasn't cooperating, and it was making me mad," Jones said. "It was kind of frustrating when somebody is talking back and won't cooperate."
It was an eye-opener, Jones said: "I got to see how it is on the opposite side of the badge."
Jones said he's had negative interactions with police in the past, and he had the opportunity talk to Young about one of those incidents after the session. Specifically, he wanted to understand the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures. When the conversation was over, Jones told Young that he was actually considering a career in law enforcement.
"That way, you can make sure what you're doing is positive, and what you're doing is right," Jones said. "I feel like the only way you can make a difference in your community is if you're a part of it."
Although not everyone who attends a session is likely to have such a profound experience, officers from the Police Department hope the program will promote "a better overall, mutual understanding," Dresner said.
Glenn Cobbins, a community organizer who works at the Imani Mission Center, agreed that the exercise was beneficial.
“It was very helpful,” he said. “People are still talking about it.”
“Just because someone has their pants sagging and a white T-shirt on doesn’t mean they’re doing crime," Cobbins said. “They’re being stereotyped. When you show up in a uniform, they’re stereotyping you, too. If it doesn’t work both ways, then it’s not going to work.”
Although there are no concrete dates set for future sessions, Cobbins said the program’s coordinators plan to continue the sessions in churches and schools. He encourages young adults who think the police are overdoing their job to attend.
"Deal With It" is still in development, but Dresner said the officers have already learned from the July session. He said he plans to dedicate the beginning of the next session to feedback from participants about how they are treated by police.