NYPD assistant chief David Barrere was skeptical at first. At a workshop for encouraging positive relations between police and young teens from the city’s toughest neighborhoods, the two groups were first told to do a couple of breathing exercises.
“I was looking out the window and wanted to jump out,” Barrere said, incredulous at the utility of deep breathing toward improving the sometimes tense relations between police and the people they serve.
But soon, the officers and teens began to open up to each other. When creator of the workshop, developmental psychologist Lenora Fulani, asked the participants what they would say to the other party if they could say anything, one young woman replied, “Where were you when I needed you most?”
The question stunned Barrere, who said, “25 years in the NYPD, and I got choked up.”
The young woman then told the participants in the room that she had witnessed both her parents getting shot and killed. She and the officer she was partnered with left the workshop knowing more about each other and the struggles they faced.
And the experience convinced Barrere that the workshop would help officers do their jobs better.
Barrere, who commands the patrol borough of Queens South, recounted the experience before an audience of teens, parents, community activists, and eight other police officers on Wednesday, at a rally to support police in the wake of recent events that threaten to wreck police–community relations.
On Saturday, two police officers were shot and killed in Brooklyn. This July, Eric Garner died after a police officer placed him in a chokehold while attempting to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. His death has sparked weeks of protests where demonstrators have called for fairer policing of communities of color, as well as for officers who use fatal force to be prosecuted.
The gathering took place inside the Manhattan headquarters of the nonprofit All Stars Project, which runs the workshops.
Fulani said that while the workshops are not a “cure-all, or panacea” for the different tensions between police and community, they are an opportunity for both sides to understand each other better.
“It allows them to open up and express themselves,” and “tap into their humanity,” Fulani said.
While Fulani, the officers, and the teens refrained from commenting directly on recent incidents and protests, they noted the importance of having both police and civilians engaged in honest conversations about their perspectives.
Star Shima, 23, said her interactions with police have often been tense, like “smash[ing] heads.” While walking down the street with her headphones on, police officers have stopped her, asking her what is in her pockets.
But after joining the workshops, she understood better the difficulties of a police officer’s job.
Asked by a reporter how young people think tensions between police and community can be defused, George, 21, said: “I think what young people want is, for police officers to know that we’re human, like the police officers. We’re very much like them.”
The workshop, called Operation Conversation, started in 2006 after 23-year-old Sean Bell was shot and killed by an NYPD officer in Queens. The incident also sparked heavy criticism of the police department at the time.
The workshop is now presented to all police recruits at their graduation ceremony from the police academy.
Local workshops at precincts, schools, and Police Athletic League meetings are led by Fulani, with 10 police officers paired up with 10 teens at each gathering. So far, Fulani has led over 100 workshops throughout the city, with more than 1,300 teens and 4,000 officers.