Genessa Lewis deviated from her unusual Sunday church attire when she spoke to her church’s young congregation. For the first time since attending Jordan Temple Baptist Church, 900 N. Lockwood, she wore her police uniform to service. But it seemed appropriate for the occasion.
“I think it is important to distinguish between the two,” said Lewis, commander of the 2nd District police station. “If we dressed in civilian clothes, I don’t think we would have gotten the same reaction.”
Lewis also spoke during a separate service on Jan. 31 to the church’s youth on how to interact with law enforcement. The dialogue is part of a pilot program launched last month by the Westside Branch NAACP to prevent encounters between police and teens from going awry.
Project United for Safety, or Project US, aims to have an open dialogue between police and teens by bringing them together in a non-threatening environment like Sunday morning church service. The effort is to make run-ins with the law less daunting for both groups.
“We have this negative attitude toward law enforcement officers, and in most cases the law enforcement agency also has a negative attitude toward our teens because of cultural differences and age,” said Karl A. Brinson, the West Side branch president.
The program, he added, is about building trust between teens and law enforcement by breaking down stereotypes. Knowing the law also helps, Brinson added.
Confrontations with police often arise from youth not fully understanding police functions, Lewis said. Police duties are often dictated by roll call where offices get information on specific criminal activities occurring in the streets, she explained.
When police hit the streets, they’re acting on this information, not randomly picking on teens, added Sgt. Yvonne Terry, also from the 2nd District.
To illustrate, the officers used role playing, enlisting students’ acting abilities to serve both as suspects and cops. In one scenario, police get a purse-snatching call describing the suspects as young black females wearing a certain style of dress. After questioning the suspects and checking identification, they are released. Another showed how to respond during a traffic stop and how “giving lip” can take a routine stop to another, unwanted level.
“We were trying to give them three different perceptions,” Terry explained. “The perception they have of what is going on, the perception we have of what’s going on and the correct perception, which is somewhere between the two.”
The role playing is a good ice-breaker because youth can ask questions candidly, which changes their perceptions of the police, Lewis added.
The civil rights organization hopes to get more churches and other community groups to sponsor this kind of dialogue. But the cops-in-churches concept was the brainchild of NAACP’s youth council.
Patrick Easley, a youth council member and Whitney Young High School junior, volunteered his church to “work out the kinks” in the program. But he added it was more in reaction to hearing his friends’ bad experiences with the police. He contends many bad encounters come from youth not knowing their rights or what to do.
Easley said many youth feel police disrespect them and often feel they are being “profiled.” He hopes this program will get a conversation going so police and youth “can come to respect one another.”
“I hope to just get awareness out of this and a basic understanding of how kids and the police officers see each other,” Easley said. “I know that all police officers are not bad, and I would like other teens to know this also.”
Gyasi Page, 16, is not convinced. He said for police to get respect, they have to give it.
“If they approach us a better way, maybe things can change,” said the Holy Trinity High School student.
Erin Belk, 15, a student at the Proviso Math and Science Academy, thought that police “abuse their powers.” Now, she said, she won’t be so quick to judge since officers’ actions are often dictated by what kind of call they get.
“You really can’t make a judgment fairly because you are making them look like the bad guy when they are actually doing their jobs, trying to help someone,” Belk said.
Porta Harris, 17, a Prosser High School student, always viewed the police favorably, but the program gave him a better understanding of police procedures. He noted that a lot of things the police do, like call for back-up and draw their weapons, have more to do with police safety.
“There is a reason for everything,” Harris said.
Jasmine Howard, 16, a student at Michelle Clark High School, had a low opinion of the police, but her perception is changing.
“Some kids are scared of the police, but if you get to sit down and talk to them, you understand what they do and why they do it,” Howard said.