It’s not uncommon for the adrenaline to rise when a driver sees flashing red lights in the rearview mirror. but the recent recurring incidents of officer-involved deaths in the U.S. has put a spotlight on how police handle all encounters with the public.
Most police interactions are routine and end peacefully. But when things go wrong, the clashes can cause injuries, some of them fatal, for police and the public. Battle lines have been drawn since the high-profile killings and injuries to several black men, incidents that have left many people wrestling with a perceived choice between support for police or people of color.
The protests over the death of George Floyd in May were still raging when Jacob Blake was shot five times by a Wisconsin police officer three months later. The fallen bridge of trust between police and the public cannot be rebuilt with a few community meetings during a crisis, according to law enforcement and community leaders.
For John Milhiser, U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois, the effort to improve trust begins with an understanding of how law enforcement and the criminal justice system works.
The Department of Justice BLAST (Building Lasting Relationships) program brings high school students and officers together for a daylong session that covers a broad range of issues, including use of force and how prosecutors make charging decisions. Participants review police reports and discuss how they would handle the cases.
The program which started in October has taken on new significance in the current social climate, said the federal prosecutor.
“I never would have thought BLAST would be as important as it is today,” said Milhiser.
Traffic stops, the encounter people are mostly likely to have with police, are demonstrated in mock traffic incidents set up by Illinois State Police troopers.
Sunshine Clemons, co-founder and co-president of Black Lives Matter in Springfield, said teens she chaperoned at the event “knew what to expect and how a traffic was supposed to go” after the lesson.
Officers also learn something during the exercise, said Milhiser.
“The other part of this is an understanding by law enforcement of what may be going through the minds of the people they’ve pulled over,” said Milhiser.
The pandemic derailed plans to host 20 BLAST sessions through schools this year but classes was held in July for teens with the local Black Lives Matter and the Frontiers International Club.
A firearms simulator that puts students in the shoes of an on-duty police officer is especially instructive as students feel the consequences of pulling a trigger, said Derrick Stapleton, president of the Springfield Frontiers group.
“They learned that domestic calls are among the worst. Seeing some of the cases police actually handle was a good experience,” said Stapleton.
Classes represent a cross-section of students in terms of ethnicity and experiences. An added benefit of the program is the ability to reach teens “who live with a high incidence of crime around them,” said Milhiser. Youth who trust police may be more willing to cooperate if they witness a crime, said the federal prosecutor.
For some high schoolers, the hours spent with law enforcement expands the opportunities they view outside the borders of their neighborhood or circle of friends, said Stapleton.
“It’s important to make different things available to them. We want kids to be well-rounded and be able to exist in environments outside their families. Parents don’t realize how influential they can be when it comes to this,” said Stapleton.
A job in law enforcement or the criminal justice system is not something sought by many minority students, an oversight that contributes to the low numbers of non-white recruits. The BLAST program introduces teens to jobs in a variety of fields, including police, probation and victim witness advocates.
“It’s very, very difficult to hire good police officers and we need them,” Milhiser said of the struggle many departments face in replacing higher numbers of retirees.
Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Police Chiefs, supports efforts by several police departments to host public sessions where the agency’s use of force policy is discussed.
“It’s an opportunity to teach, listen, educate and learn. If police departments would do more community education, including on traffic stops, it would solve a lot of problems,” said Wojcicki.
Springfield’s Black Lives Matter held 21 meetings during August with law enforcement and criminal justice leaders, said Clemons. The national dialogue following the Blake and Floyd incidents “has opened some doors that were not open before.”
“It’s best if people can be put in real contact with each other, in a safe way. We don’t want people to automatically fear police and we don’t want police to automatically fear our kids,” said Clemons.
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