Having Critical Conversations Changes Everything

Good things happen when youth and police come together

DETROIT — When a Detroit police car pulled up in front of a home last December in the southwest section of the city, a neighbor peeked out her window. A car driving by slowed to a crawl.

Corporal Marcus Norwood got out of the car and walked to the front door carrying a gift bag. The driver rolled down his window and shouted: "Hey, what's going on over there? Is everything ok?"

Norwood assured him that not only was everything in order, but he came bearing gifts.

"Gifts? The police are passing out gifts?"

Norwood explained that he and other officers were visiting youth who completed a six-week program in which they expressed their feelings to police officers about difficult social issues.

The driver encouraged Norwood to keep up the good work and said: "It's nice to hear and see stuff like this. More of these things are needed."

That's the way it has been going in Detroit for officers and the 112 students, aged from 10 to 19, who participated in Ford's Critical Conversations last winter. For six weeks beginning in November, police and local youth came together for a weekly two-hour Zoom call to discuss ways to promote positive relations between their community and police.

And goodwill spilled over into the neighborhoods. The students shared with their friends and families that police are not out to hurt or restrain them. Officers learned that kids often talk to police the way they talk to each other, and slang doesn't necessarily mean trouble.

Inspired by racial and social justice marches across the country last summer, Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropic arm of Ford, worked with the Detroit Police Athletic League (PAL) to organize the program, creating discussion topics, and signing up kids.

"During this time, we know it is critical to find ways to gain mutual trust through positive police interaction with youth," said Robert Jamerson, CEO of Detroit PAL. "We had to combat the unrest we witnessed in 2020. We focused on removing implicit bias, creating empathy and suggesting solutions when situations with police happen."

The weekly topics reflected the serious nature of the program, Jamerson said. They included Community Perspectives of Police, Social and Cultural Norms, Police Brutality and Harassment, Social Media's Role, Fact vs. Fiction, and Maintaining Positive Contact.

As the program evolved, word spread, and participation grew. Between 30 and 50 youth, officers and city officials, who joined as observers, were on the call each week. The number of kids nearly doubled over the six-week period.

"The Critical Conversations program was an 'aha' moment for me," said Allison, 19, who is studying broadcast journalism at Schoolcraft Community College. "I was biased because I had heard things, and I'd seen videos. But I've never been in a situation. So, when I heard police on the calls say they know that we're going through things, that kind of changed my thinking."

Norwood joined the Detroit Police Department in 1989. He is currently working with PAL as a baseball coach and mentor to young Detroiters. He knows first-hand that even in non-threatening situations, kids can be leery of cops.

With Critical Conversations, however, he saw lasting positive change. Playing baseball is good, but it is not the same as talking frankly about your feelings, he said. Graphic depiction on Facebook and YouTube of fatal encounters between police and Black men and women has left its mark.

Detroit PAL sees it as their job to undo the damage. With support from Ford Fund, Detroit PAL was able to start the process.

"We have to be willing to unlearn some things and have empathy for each other," Jamerson said. "Even the best of us can act out of character. Discussions like Ford's Critical Conversations allow for people to have greater understanding of what the challenges are. We're fortunate to have the support of Ford Fund."

Shawn Thompson, Ford Motor Company Fund's community development manager, sits on Detroit PAL's board of directors. She was instrumental in the early planning and is proud of the results.

"I attended the weekly programming and witnessed the impact the conversations made on both the officers and students alike," Thompson said. "And that's why we did it, these important conversations are helping to build trust and strengthen our communities."

Maria Franklin, Detroit PAL's director of Youth Enrichment, attended each session. She was struck by the transparency of the officers. "They explained to the kids how law enforcement should behave at a traffic stop. They emphasized that police don't have ill intentions, and the kids don't need to feel anxious."

For his part, Norwood said he understands why kids do feel anxious. "There were several students who flat out said they don't like police, actually hated us. They heard stories and saw what's on social media. They admitted that when officers would say hello to them, they would turn away.

"Now they say, 'I know that I can go up to an officer and say hello and introduce myself.' They definitely have a different outlook."

Twelve-year-old Daylen said he came away from the program feeling as though his voice mattered. "I got to talk, and people listened to what I'm saying as though I'm the president," he said. "I had seen the video on George Floyd and saw police picking on mostly Black people for no reason. I talked about that. I learned a lot more about how police feel and all the good cops that do all these amazing things, like my dad."

Dan, Daylen's father, is a Neighborhood Police Officer in the 11th Precinct. He, too, took part in the program. "I love the engagement with the kids," he said. "They opened up and expressed themselves."

Detroit PAL surveyed 16 youth before and after the program on whether they agree or disagree with two statements: "I feel safe around police officers" and "I have respect for police officers." They rated the statements "0" for strongly disagree and "5" for strongly agree.

In the pre-program surveys, the majority of youth gave "3" and "4" ratings to feeling safe around police; and were spread across the board about having respect for police.

In the post-program surveys, the numbers had clearly shifted toward "strongly agree" for feeling safe around officers as well as having respect for them.

When the program ended, many participants brainstormed on how to keep the enthusiasm and learnings going.

Alex, 18, a freshman at Henry Ford Community College, said he is working on a series of workshops that uses history to study social issues. "I want to set up workshops: by youth for youth," he said. "I don't want to make those boring workshops where you sit there and watch slides. I want kids to interact, talk about issues and take field trips."

Alex, who is studying to be a social worker, credited the Critical Conversations program with giving him a clearer understanding of police-community relations. "I learned how to deal with police in a good way. If they stop you, stay calm.

"Yes, I have more knowledge," he said. "I want to teach that knowledge to my community members."

Detroit PAL and Ford Fund is planning a second Critical Conversations class in late 2021. Pending CDC and state recommendations regarding COVID-19, the sessions will be held in-person at the Ford Resource and Engagement Center in Southwest Detroit.

"The more you have conversations like these between law enforcement and the community, the better," Norwood said. "The positive ripple effect through communities is real."

Meanwhile, Detroit PAL and Ford Fund continue to promote Critical Conversations through social media and the community. There have been some 500 visits to Detroit PAL's Facebook page to watch the video story as well as replays of the initial six sessions.

If you are interested in watching the sessions, click on the videos below.