In the wake of the numerous deaths of young black men at the hands of police, the rise of the black lives matter movement, and the mass incarceration epidemic, tensions have been at an all time high in recent years. A new program being launched in the city of Newark is working to change all that. The All Star Project’s Cops and Kids program is working to break the stereotypes that often lead to tension between young people and the police.
“Their cousins, their family members, fathers have been locked up before so it makes them have that negative outlook.”
17-year-old Newark leadership academy student Lashay Harrison says many of peers fear the police in their neighborhoods, especially those coming from households that have experienced loss at the hands of law enforcement.
“I think this program is going to make us have a better outlook and a better future, because they’re here in our community trying to help us instead of us running to violence.”
Dwayne Dixon says there was a time when he felt the same way, especially as a young Black male.
“Growing in the cities of Newark and East Orange I was always taught to avoid police interaction whenever possible at any cost. When you say you’re from Newark you are treated with hostility and suspicion, being in a room full of cops put me on edge.”
Dixon started attending The All Stars Project development program when he was 18 years old. Now seven years later he runs their talent division for Newark youth. Dixon says the Cops and kids workshop helped changed his perceptions of police officers
“I said to myself the next time I’m in my community and I see an officer I’m going to speak, so I walked up to him and I said hello, and he looked at me for a second, and he said hi! And I realized at that moment putting in that effort through Cops and Kids can change interactions.”
Dr. Lenora Fulani, founder of the Cops and Kids program, says experiences like Dixon’s are what will make this program a success, especially for those young people who have experienced trauma in their lives.
“Their lives are filled with trauma, and very seldom to people ever acknowledge that, so in a way sitting young people down with police officers and vice versa and having them have conversations that aren’t determined by what’s happening in the streets, but what’s possible is very impactful.”
Dr. Fulani began the program in New York City in 2006 in the wake of the police involved shooting of Sean Bell. It uses performance, improvisation, and conversation to help inner city kids connect and develop positive interactions with police officers.
Mayor Baraka says Cops and Kids is a program that gets to the heart of the issue, the distrust between the youth that are often both the victims and the perpetrators of violent crime, even those who many say have be traumatized beyond repair.
“There’s a real problem happening and its deeper than just the surface and we need to talk about what’s going on and figure out how to deal with the real psychosis and the psychology of why when these two people meet it results in death, what are the systemic issues that that are resulting in this and how do we deal with this in a way that lets people leave and feel like human beings, and I think that that’s what this does.”
Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose agrees, adding that in many cases it is also the cops who are traumatized by the very same issues.
“I think that when you talk about trauma, we’re talking about an injury, and so I think we have an infection, and I think its going to take time for us to build a trust, and for the community to trust the police and of the police to trust the community, and to talk about real issues and how to really get to those core issue to make it better, and I think just talking about it is a great start.”
Newark Police Detective Kevin Johnson has participated in several of the Cops and Kids workshops.
“I, like my fellow officers who have gone through the program, know that it works, and it is a benefit for our officers and the youth, and most importantly to our community. I’ve enjoyed it so much, so many times, that I’ve been told, that I should quite coming so more officers can participate in the event, but if they ever need me to come back, I’ll come back, because I enjoyed it, I felt its like a bridge to building a relationship.”
While the cops and kids program is not an overnight fix to a decades old problem for all who have participated like detective Johnson, it is a start.
“To Newark, It is a beautiful day to love your neighborhood, and make the neighborhood strong.”