Project PEACE forges fruitful conversations between officers, youth

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Youth and Tacoma police participate in a youth-led discussion held at Mt. Tahoma High School on Feb. 16, 2018. Photo courtesy of City of Tacoma

Lizette Harris, a freshman at UW-Tacoma, remembers a time growing up on Hilltop when someone in her neighborhood was shot and killed and Tacoma police took forever to respond.

From that early age, Harris’ impression of Tacoma police was to fear them and to mistrust them.

But starting in her junior year at Life Christian High School, at the invitation of a friend, Harris started to attend Project Peace events at the Tacoma Police Department. Attending those, coupled with more interactions with adult professionals, Harris’ mood about local police began to evolve for the better and she started to feel less uncomfortable around them.

“As I grew up, I saw officers as doing good,” said Harris, a person of color. “As I get older and I am having more interactions with adults and other professionals, I’m not seeing (police officers) as a villain.”

This positive relationship change between students of color and local law enforcement is a signature goal of Project P.E.A.C.E. (Partnering for Equity and Community Engagement), which was formed in September 2015 following a handful of community discussions between Tacoma police and city leaders and concerned citizens. The initiative was inspired by the desire to avoid police violence toward persons of color, similar to what happened in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, when Michal Brown, an 18-year-old person of color, was killed by white officers.

A culminating event in February 2016 resulted in the release of multiple priorities desired by the community for Project Peace to accomplish. These included building better relations between students of color and police; more engagement with the broader community; implementing a body camera program to improve policy and oversight; diversifying the police force more when hiring new officers; improving officer awareness of institutional racism, implicit bias, cultural competency, de-escalation and providing mental health trauma and crisis training; and ensuring the wellness and safety of officers.

An executive committee was established and met for the first time in July 2016. Hermenia Jackson, a committee member who has been with Project Peace since the beginning, said that while many of the priorities have not been fully realized, this year there has been a concerted  push to focus on fostering healthier relations between students of color and police officers.

In February of this year, the initiative held its first youth-led discussion, bringing youth and police together, at Mt. Tahoma High School. In March and April the discussions were held at Lincoln and Stadium high schools, respectively. A final discussion for the school year will be held at the end of May at Oakland High School.

“I did a lot of research around other (youth-led engagement) models, and worked with Che (Rogers) and Lizette (Harris) to come up with engaging conversations that hit at issues of how police see enforcing,” Jackson said. “Part of the conversation is to get at these differences and call them out. So far, most police officers believe the media is the cause of the negative perception of police in general. People of color have a different perspective—that it’s not just the media, that there is a lived reality.”

 Che Rogers, a senior at Mt. Tahoma High School, and Harris are coordinating and leading all the youth-led discussions. Harris said, so far, the discussions have been very fruitful.

“With these high schoolers, they have a lot of good things to say,” Harris said. “We talk about systematic racism, and because a lot of youth who come to the discussions are minorities, it makes it closer to home.”

Marcus Rogers, a Project Peace committee member and Che Rogers’ father, said discussions are usually held in a small classroom setting to create intimacy between youth and officers. Ice breakers are done first to help youth and officers acclimate to the space. The discussions start with officers in the middle and youth on the outside leading discussion around policing and community and taking notes and jotting down questions. Marcus Rogers said the reverse occurs where youth then are in the middle and officers and community leaders are on the perimeter.

“It’s been an interesting growth as we have watched these dialogues,” Marcus Rogers said. “The confidence that (Che and Lizette) have shown has allowed kids to feel a lot more comfortable.”

Jackson said overall the discussions have been successful because it allows officers and youth to gain a different perspective.

“I personally want it to go deeper to talk more about institutional racism,” Jackson said. “We need more buy-in from officers. We also need it to be authentic enough for youth to have buy-in. We’re moving onto our fourth (discussion at Oakland), and so it’s a work in progress.”

Jackson and Marcus Rogers said the desire is to continue with more of these youth-led discussions next school year, with the possibility of adding middle school students. At its next committee meeting at 6 p.m. on June 12 at the Tacoma Police Department, Jackson said the group is hoping to receive an update from the police department related to the progress of the other priorities established by the community back in February of 2016.

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