“I don’t know what it feels like to walk in your shoes. I don’t know what it feels like to wake up every morning and kiss the people you love, knowing that your job can put you in grave danger. I don’t know what it feels like to be tasked with making split-second decisions that can change or end a person’s life.
“But I know what it feels like to walk in my shoes. And my hope is that I can talk to you about my shoes, and, in exchange, maybe you trust me to talk about your shoes; and we will find a way to come together on a journey that will connect us on a trusting path.”
This is the opening statement I’ve shared with more than a thousand police officers in my work to bridge the gap between law enforcement and communities of color. It hasn’t been easy; cynicism is high on both sides.
On the one hand, African Americans and communities of color have a history of mistrusting (and fearing) law enforcement — sentiments that are reinforced when we see footage of young, unarmed people of color brutalized and shot by police.
On the other hand, the attacks on law enforcement by extremists create unjust pain and deepen the chasm of mistrust and defensiveness in the public safety community.
Fortunately, a new effort was announced this week that aims to reverse these trends in California, bringing together communities of color and law enforcement to not only create trust but also reforms that are good for public safety. And it will start with each side bringing their honest selves.
I myself have enough racial baggage with law enforcement to justify residency in the land of cynicism. When the Ferguson Uprising occurred, after the “shot heard around the trust-building world,” I had to make a choice: continue my work addressing the trust deficit or give in to my own cynicism and bias.
I’ve been racially profiled. My brother was assaulted by police in college. My father is a product of the Jim Crow South. My great-uncle was rumored to be killed by the Ku Klux Klan, some of whom were off-duty police officers.
But partnership calls for something different. Something more courageous and radically counterintuitive. For transformative change, we must commit ourselves fully to walking in each other’s shoes.
As a faith leader in Oakland Community Organizations, we piloted a trust-building program from 2013 to 2015. With community participation and perspectives as a centerpiece, we trained 700 Oakland police officers on the historical effects of policing, how to better listen, see other’s perspectives, and maintain trust throughout interactions.
An important component of the program was creating a space for Oakland residents and police officers to identify reforms together. One such policy prevents dangerous foot pursuits by police into residential backyards — a leading factor in officer-involved shootings. In the 20 years before our program, an Oakland officer was involved in a fatal shooting every six weeks on average. After implementation, OPD went 23 months without a single, lethal officer-involved shooting (and experienced fewer officer-related injuries during the same period).
In 2015, as founder of Empower Initiative, I collaborated with the California Department of Justice and Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University to train 70 law enforcement executives and create a curriculum based on California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ Principled Policing Training manual. The goal: Bring community members and law enforcement together to reform policies and repair relationships.
Moving forward, PICO California will build upon this important trust-building work over the next two years. With the support of seven California foundations, we will equip community members to train 3,000 officers in Sacramento, Stockton, Richmond, Berkeley, San Francisco, Fresno, Modesto, Bakersfield, Los Angeles County, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego. As part of 120 regional meetings with law enforcement and community members, we will identify and implement concrete policy solutions for improving police and community relationships.
And that’s what we need: Community members and law enforcement working together to identify concrete solutions for neighborhoods across California.
We are calling Californians to step into each other’s shoes and widen the circle of our concern. Partnership is not an option; it’s a necessity. It’s going to take real leadership to see each other’s point of view, without total agreement, and pioneer new roads that lead to safe, peaceful communities. And that’s something we all want and deserve.
The Rev. Ben McBride is the deputy director at PICO California, a statewide network of 500 faith institutions and community organizations. A former pastor, he has served as the primary non-police trainer for the Oakland Police Department’s Procedural Justice & Police Legitimacy Course. He lives in Oakland.