Ikeem H., a 23-year-old from North Philadelphia, grew up selling dope to pay for food and clothes. One day, when police “blitzed” a well-known corner for dealing, he ended up in cuffs. Marked with a criminal record, Ikeem asked that his last name not be used to protect his privacy. He says officers routinely pinned drugs on him. They told him to shut up and tossed him in patrol cars.
“They messed up my life,” Ikeem reflects. “And I honestly would never forgive ’em. So, I don’t even really like talking with cops.”
At least, that’s what he said before sitting down to share pizza and chat with officers attending a meet-up hosted by a Pennsylvania nonprofit which focuses on rebuilding trust between police departments and minority youth. The organization, Pennsylvania Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC), trains Philadelphia cops to empathize with inner-city youth. Its seminars aren’t a certain fix to rebuilding trust between police and the communities they serve, but data collected from DMC and other case studies around the country, suggest they are making a difference.
These open conversations are happening across the country. In New Jersey’s suburbs, a teen asked a detective, “Do you guys think we’re good kids?” Cops shared tips about dealing with online harassment and dating violence in Seattle. Orlando participants role-played a traffic stop before reviewing citizens’ rights during the encounter.
Ikeem volunteered to attend the Philly meet-up. Within hours, he gained a new understanding for police officers’ duties. “It’s more we can do on our side, ya know: hear ’em out first, know that they doin’ [their] job,” he says, explaining that cops often aren’t looking to make arrests; rather, they’re sent to unfamiliar locations to respond to 9-1-1 calls.
These types of meet-ups, which are formally known as “facilitated dialogue,” also appear to be associated with a drop in crime. After forums in a Boston public housing complex, violent crime in that neighborhood decreased substantially, dropping 31 percent between 2009 and 2010. Drug offenses also plunged 57 percent over a three-year period.
Nationally, the number of juvenile arrests decreased 50 percent from 2005 to 2014. Researchers believe that these forums may be a contributing factor for the drop in crime.
Meet-ups are designed to breakdown negative perceptions of both cops and kids. Stereotypes can get in the way of keeping communities safe, says Rhonda McKitten, who helped develop and expand DMC’s program across Philadelphia and into Connecticut and Florida. Police “don’t have the relationships that are going to help them get information,” McKitten says. “And young people … are not going to be able to go to them when they need help.”
But lucky for law enforcement, it’s easy to spread the impact of these meetings. After a decade of watching the interactions, Jay Paris, director of Youth Link, an organization that runs similar programs in Boston, estimates that only about four dozen kids need to attend the forums to rebuild trust with the police in a specific neighborhood.
Sometimes, the payoff can be even greater. Ryan Rivera, a North Philly twenty-something who’s attended multiple DMC forums over the years, has a new life goal: “To become a Philadelphia police officer.”