What is one thing most urban youth have in common? – A general dislike and mistrust of law enforcement. A dislike and mistrust that can have dangerous, far-reaching consequences. That is why a program like STOP, an innovative approach being tested in Milwaukee, is so important.
Students Talking it Over with Police (STOP) was initiated in September 2010 by the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) in collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee (BGCGM), in response to escalating conflict and animosity in police encounters with youth.
“It’s not about changing the minds of kids, it’s about showing the kids what happens and why it happens and, with the generation we’re talking about, the ‘why’ is more important than ever before,” said Captain Victor Beecher, Director of the Training Division for the MPD. The program gives officers an opportunity to “explain themselves” to youth, he said.
Under the direction of Milwaukee Chief of Police Edward Flynn, Sergeant Delmar Williams and other members of the District 5 Community Prosecution Unit spearheaded the initiative, contacting the BGCGM to field test the program, and the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee (UWM) to evaluate its efficacy.
“We have to give a lot of credit to our chief who recognized the potential for a problem and was very proactive about communicating with our youth,” said Sergeant Williams.
The program, which facilitates dialogue between youth and police, was evaluated by Drs. Kimberly Hassell and Tina Freiburger of UWM over several months. The evaluators conducted focus groups with the program’s initial participants, and facilitated new sessions where participants were administered a pre- and a post-test, and divided into three groups: a STOP group, a UWM group, and a Control Group #2.
The study found that the STOP session conducted by the MPD officers was the most effective in changing youth perceptions of police. A typical STOP session begins with introductions; officers ask the youth their first and last names, where they’re from, and what future career they seek. Officers also introduce themselves and encourage the youth to call them by their first names.
Introductions are followed by a detailed look at the city of Milwaukee, in which officers and youth explore the city’s districts and the crime rates in each by examining maps of the city. Officers share with youth when and where certain crimes are most likely to occur, and highlight the concentration of crime in Milwaukee’s inner city. City ordinances are also reviewed, sometimes by an Assistant District Attorney, but usually by the officers.
Officers then play and review a typical computer-aided dispatch (CAD), or in laymen’s terms, a call, with the youth. The officers ask youth to identify the important information. The youth find the exercise challenging and frustrating: bringing home the point that officers rarely have all the facts when they respond to a call.
The majority of the STOP session is focused on appropriate police and youth behavior during stops. The officers review with youth the MPD Code of Conduct, passing it around the room for the youth to examine.
After discussing appropriate police behavior, the officers then explain important conflict resolution and social skills that could improve these interactions. Youth are told to –
- Engage in active listening
- Ask questions
- Be courteous
- Recognize differing perspectives
- Watch out for emotional triggers
- Watch their body language
- Take action to control the situation.
Youth’s understanding of these skills is tested when officers and youth role-play typical interactions with one catch – the youth play the role of police officers while the officers act as citizens being stopped. This role reversal allows both youth and officers to comprehend the difficulty in each other’s situation, and to assess how their own behaviors directly affect the other’s responses.
UWM researchers concluded the program is a success for improving youth perceptions of police in Milwaukee. Youth have left STOP sessions feeling empowered by the information they were taught and less adversarial towards police.
And what do officers get out of this program?
Pride and understanding that they’re doing something important for the community, said Captain Beecher. If we can reach out to kids and explain to them what exactly is going on in a way the makes them assets not only to law enforcement when we’re investigating crime, but to the community, we’ve created an environment where suspicion is replaced by understanding and trust.
That change in the community’s view of police is apparent. Sergeant Williams recalls being stopped by a woman and her teenaged daughter while grocery shopping. The woman told him that the program was one of the best her daughter had ever participated in, and that she had come away with a “newfound respect for you guys.”
The MPD is now looking to expand the STOP program beyond the Boys’ and Girls’ Club. Over forty officers, supervisors, and command officers have volunteered to become trained instructors, who will bring the program to Milwaukee public schools starting this fall.
Captain Beecher said he ultimately hopes to see the program expand far beyond the city limits. “We’re going to give it away to anyone who wants to replicate our success,” he said.