When a small group of police officers sits down with local youth at the Gainesville Police Department’s Hall of Heroes, the end goal is understanding through conversation.
As part of the Police-Youth Dialogue Program, which started in the department last year, eight to 12 police officers are selected each month to meet with Gainesville teenagers for a conversation about the relationships between police officers and minors.
The River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, a local organization that works to resolve conflict through community building and communication, is responsible for implementing the program. RPCP Executive Director Jeffery Weisberg said the program teaches police about adolescent development and the effects of trauma.
“The goal for the young people is to build a new or stronger relationship with officers, to understand the law and the consequences of their behavior and to gain some new skills of building relationships,” he said.
The program begins with a five-hour seminar where the police and teenagers are separated and asked to describe each other using words from A to Z.
From the police officers’ point of view, “‘C’ might be crazy or ‘D’ might be defiant,” said Gretchen Casey, director of victim services for the Office of the State Attorney in Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit.
After going through the training program, Casey now attends each session to meet with the teens, who come from varied backgrounds and are recommended by local outlets including probation officers and leadership clubs.
Casey said the teens often use positive words to describe police such as polite, kind or decent.
“But you have some kids who have had negative experiences,” she said. “For ‘G,’ I think they put in the word ‘greedy.'”
Once the exercise is complete, the groups come together and share their descriptions. Time is set aside to discuss the experiences behind the words afterward.
Sgt. Audrey Mazzuca of the GPD, who helps run the program, said the biggest problem in the police-teenager relationship is the lack of communication and opportunity to talk about issues.
“We are creating that time when (youths) can talk to an officer one on one, (and) we’re seeing some attitudes being changed,” she said.
Casey said one of the key outcomes of the program is the realization that everybody wants the same thing.
“Police and youth both simply want respect,” she said. “They want to feel like they are treated as human beings.”
The program aims to foster better relationships between police officers and youth while also addressing a specific issue known as RED, or Racial and Ethnic Disparity, Weisberg said.
RED highlights the greater number of black and Hispanic youths than whites who are entering the country’s criminal justice system, he explained.
Out of about 1,200 juvenile offense cases reported in Alachua County in 2014, 79 percent involved juveniles listed as black, Hispanic, biracial or other, according to data collected by the state attorney’s office, Casey said.
In contrast, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data from 2010, just 20.3 percent of Alachua County respondents self-identified as black or African American and 8.4 percent self-identified as Hispanic or Latino.
By creating an environment that encourages open conversation, the program hopes to break down stereotypes and de-escalate conflicts, ultimately resulting in fewer arrests, Mazzuca said.
Ryan Smith, executive director of the Spirit of Blue Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing officer safety nationwide, said GPD’s program also acts as a proactive response to police officer safety.
Although Spirit of Blue usually awards grants for police safety equipment, the organization recently selected the GPD Police-Youth Dialogue Program to receive a grant of almost $6,400 from the Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins Community Foundation.
“We’re proposing that officer safety can come through community policing,” Weisberg said. “Kids will be safer and communities will be safer if officers have a higher degree of skill and sensitivity to the issues and needs of youth.”
Part of the grant, which was awarded to the GPD at a ceremony Feb. 24, will fund program development efforts through the River Phoenix Center.
The organization plans to have a standardized curriculum by 2016 that will be shared with other police departments in the region and eventually spread throughout the state and nation.
“We see this as something that’s actually going to impact even outside of the Gainesville area,” Smith said. “It’s a chance for the minority youth to say, ‘Hey, listen: This is what my life looks like. These are my hopes, my dreams (and) my fears.'”
Smith said he believes both groups are more likely to use empathy, compassion and understanding during interactions with each other after completing the program.