So, what can we do to move forward? The issue of police brutality remains in the news. It has always been an issue, but it has come to the surface and we must deal with it (and other forms of systemic racism) now. Beech Brook staff have spent the last few weeks researching how to talk to kids and clients about these issues, how we can support each other and how we can really make a difference.

Meanwhile, I was posting helpful tips on Facebook and arguing with people about what it all means and what we ought to do. Facebook is good for arguments. But sometimes, it’s also good for reminding you about where you came from.

My childhood friend, DJ, replied to one of my comments with a very simple reply, “You are starting in the wrong place.”

I knew what he meant immediately.

The words on the tip sheets are just words. So are the words in policies, laws and even in the Constitution. And they don’t mean anything if you don’t feel them or if you don’t believe in them. And by themselves they don’t change anything at all.

We work in a field where most people understand that you can’t change a person without first building a relationship. I didn’t consciously understand that early in my career. But I was lucky. I had great mentors and peers who helped me. They all said the same thing: it’s about the relationship. People change because they know you care about them and they care about, you. That’s when they can feel safe and really get down to it. And that’s when you feel safe. You don’t have to be perfect. If you make a mistake they will understand. They feel the good will in your heart.

Somehow, we lose something very important as we grow older. When I was a kid, we had conversations about race, racism and religion all the time. We were not afraid to ask each other questions, and we didn’t feel any pressure to be perfect with each other either. It didn’t mean that I ever really understood what it was like to be black, Jewish, Catholic, Vietnamese or any other category that made us “different.” They didn’t know exactly what it was like to be me either. But we never turned our backs on each other.

As adults, somehow, we lose that inhibition. We get careful with what we say and what we ask. We listen to rebut, not just understand. We expect people to “prove” that their experience is valid versus simply accepting that how a person or group of people experience the world IS their experience. And when you have a relationship with someone, it’s hard to dismiss their experience…even if you don’t fully understand.

I think the starting point is actively creating caring relationships. This means purposefully building relationships with people who are “different” than you. Thoughtfully checking your instinct to rebut and become defensive. It means asking and answering questions that make you uncomfortable. And I believe this is possible because I think most of us are well intentioned. Ignorant, scared, defensive, apathetic, yes, those things too. But well intentioned.

There is a lot of arguing going on now about changing our laws and policies on policing. That is just the tip of the iceberg. And I think those things need to be attended to. But at the end of the day, it will be people who choose to implement those policies or not. It will be people who choose to enforce or not to enforce those laws. And until we learn how to listen, understand, find empathy, and become stronger, better people together, laws and policies will just be words on paper.

How are we doing that at Beech Brook? Through our partnership in the Police-Assisted Referral (PAR) Program, we're training police officers in the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority to be first social responders as first as first responders. That means learning to recognize residents who are experiencing mental health issues, domestic violence, trauma and other problems and making an immediate referral for services. Beech Brook then responds within 24-48 hours.

Funded for the past two years by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Cleveland Foundation, the Saint Luke’s Foundation and the Sisters of Charity Foundation, the PAR Program has the potential to fundamentally change the attitudes, interactions and relationships between a neighborhood and the police protecting and serving it.

Principal Investigator Mark Singer, Ph.D., frequently accompanies CMHA police units out on patrol, assessing the program and ensuring it’s working right. He cites data culled from surveys collected over a two-year period from individuals who received PAR services. The survey ultimately asked a fundamental question: “As a result of PAR, how has your opinion of police officers changed?”

The results:

It’s improved: 39%

It’s the same: 56%

It’s gotten worse: 4%

“Over a third of the respondents said that their opinion of the police improved through their participation in the PAR program,” Dr. Singer says. “We hear neighborhood residents saying things like, ‘The officer saved my life’ and ‘It’s nice to know that you can count on the police for more than just arresting.’”

He also notes that the PAR program has also proved exceptionally helpful in boosting police morale.

“Police officers love it,” says Dr. Singer. “We did two focus groups with police – one before their participation in PAR and then one after – and what we hear from them is very encouraging. They say, ‘I can sleep at night, now. I’d have to leave these events saying, Well, you know, I arrested him, but man, that family is in deep trouble. Now, I know I got the family, or can get the family, help. And it takes me sixty seconds. I phone in. Give the name. The service follows up. And I’ve helped someone.’”

The other thing that officers cite is the new relationship they experience with the people they’ve helped; citizens stop them on the street now to thank them for pointing them in the right direction. Thank them for helping them get help.

“And this is happening in the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city,” says Dr. Singer, “with citizens who are often the most alienated and the poorest who often distrust police. That’s the amazing part.”

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