“The 15-year-old might not have been taught how to interact with the police. If the parents didn’t teach him, the teachers didn’t teach him, and the community hasn’t taught him…the only answer that makes sense is….us (police).”
One tenet of law enforcement that can never be forgotten is that the authority of the police officer to enforce the law is granted by our collective society. Checks and balances on that authority are in place, for sure, but different subcultures of our society often experience police interactions very differently. An episode from the HBO TV series VICE entitled “Black and Blue” examined the relationships between police and the community since the Ferguson riots two years ago. To sum up their findings, the relationships between police officers and many communities of color remain strained. Police shootings of African Americans and attacks on police officers continued to be a problem throughout 2016.
While working for my former agency, I had the pleasure to meet Jason Lehman, who interned with my squad while completing his criminology degree at the University of South Florida. Jason then returned to his home state of California, became a police officer with Long Beach PD, and founded the community policing group Why’d You Stop Me (WYSM, pronounced Wizz-em). WYSM’s approach has been to reach out to inner-city youth and try to bridge the gap between police officers and the community by providing empowerment education. In addition, WYSM has also trained police officers on better techniques to interact with the citizens they serve. For Jason, it has been a personal journey.
In December, 2011 with six years on the job while working in a gang suppression unit in Long Beach, Lehman learned that he had been targeted to be killed in an ambush by gang members. Lehman and his team considered how to respond. Of course, their first plan was to identify all the members and hit back hard in a “scorched earth” approach of parole searches and probation sweeps. Lehman knew that would only be a temporary solution to the problem, as a roundup would only put off the threat to another day when they might not be able to develop the same intelligence to prevent the attack.
Instead, Lehman walked into a classroom at a high school where he knew there was a concentration of the gang members. He had an open conversation with the entire room about the fears that police officers face every day when they contact people. Lehman told them about the training he received throughout the academy and in roll call showing officers getting ambushed by suspects, and how perception equals reality. Several of the teenagers in the room, including identified gang members, admitted that they had a similar perception of police officers killing people like them. Lehman found common ground. As he left the room, the school principal stopped him and asked him what the name of his program was. Lehman thought about this question, then answered, “These kids seemed to really be concerned about WHY they were getting stopped, so let’s call it ‘Why’d You Stop Me?’” The name stuck and is now the thriving nonprofit that has provided educational presentations to more than 20 cities across five states.
Lehman’s message quickly spread among seven other high schools in the Long Beach area, and WYSM was born. Lehman began to coordinate presentations with police officers and community members standing side by side to hash out their concerns.
During a telephone interview conducted with Lehman on in March of 2017, I had the opportunity to learn more about the WYSM approach to community policing. As a former instructor of the often-maligned Interpersonal Communication Skills course for police academy training, I found that many if not most were very skeptical. I asked if Lehman had run into the same types of problem.
Lehman stated that the course taught to police officers, “CP21- Community Policing in the 21st Century to Reduce Conflict,” puts the officer back in the shoes of a regular citizen in scenario-based training where they are getting stopped by an officer. “In the beginning, police officers see this as another feelings program, another type of implicit bias training, or principled policing…that teaches cops how to be better cops. Our approach is to teach officers that they are the experts and should take the lead on how to teach the community the best approach for interacting with us. Making an assumption that parents taught their children how to act when they are stopped by police is setting the stage for failure in communication.” It simply boils down to teaching police to teach people how they want to be treated. Lehman asserts that this is not a “hug a thug” program. In other words, it is not built to be “soft on crime.”
Many neighborhoods that are quickly labeled as problematic with terms such as “high crime,” “high drug,” etc. are populated with hard-working, honest citizens who are just as fearful of the criminals in the neighborhood as they are the police. In my personal experience, at least, it required building trust to get those residents to cooperate with me when they witnessed crime in the neighborhood. A program such as Lehman’s will go a long way toward building or rebuilding that trust.
Lehman said that building trust must start with the assumption that “the 15-year-old might not have been taught how to interact with the police. If the parents didn’t teach him, the teachers didn’t teach him, and the community hasn’t taught him how to safely interact with police, who should that responsibility fall upon? The only answer that makes sense on who should teach them is….us (police).”
Lehman wants his fellow officers and the community he serves to know that “we have a badge, but our badge has a heartbeat, not an ego.” Of course, he acknowledges that police officers are human, and humans make mistakes and bad decisions. Lehman says his program is designed to remind the public that the overwhelming majority of officers are good people trying to do a difficult job, and that they get just as frustrated at those few bad apples.
The three principles WYSM teaches officers and community members are:
- Stay crime-free and ethically sound.
- Remember that character is displayed when no one is looking.
- We wear a common uniform.
A blue symbolic reminder band is provided to attendees of WYSM events, reminding both officers and citizens what they learned about police/citizen interactions and to extend the thin blue line. “The thin blue line for us is something we welcome our community members into.” This is a way of providing community members with an extension of the uniforms that officers wear and building a sense of community.
Lehman is excited to announce that WYSM has recently been tasked as a required diversion program in the Long Beach area for arrestees charged with resisting arrest. “We are working in partnership with the LBPD, city prosecutor Doug Haubert, and the Long Beach criminal courts.” Lehman said. He explains why this diversion program is so important:
“Community members often get arrested for resisting arrest because they haven’t quite learned how to cooperate with authority figures like police officers. Typically, these folks will not see jail during their first offense and will be sentenced to 50 hours of community service picking up trash on the side of the road. My question is this…what does that teach these folks about how to better cooperate with authority next time they have a run-in with the police if they ever do? Our program empowers these folks with a better skill set of how to safely get through a police/community contact, and this education is vital to improving police/community relationships.”
WYSM is a nonprofit organization in California, but it’s relevant to our entire nation. Jason invites you to follow him on Instagram @jasonlehman64 and @teamwysm. You can follow them on Facebook by clicking this link.