Like millions around the world, Steven Faulkner was touched by the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. Following this case and similar incidents, he shared many conversations with his best friend, Glenn, a Puerto Rican man who had experienced some negative interactions with the police throughout his life. These incidents and discussions motivated Faulkner, a lieutenant with the Binghamton University Police Department (UPD), to try to improve police-community relations in the area.
“Obviously, I can’t fix the country. I can only make an impact where I work and hopefully do something better where we can help young people in this area,” Faulkner said.
So Faulkner applied for and received a $15,000 grant for the UPD from the Community Foundation for South Central New York to finance the Youth and Police Initiative, a national training program that aims to replace negative perceptions with understanding so that participating youth and police officers develop new ways of interacting with each other. The grant allowed Faulkner to train officers from NYS University Police, Binghamton Police and Johnson City Police.
“We’re not just trying to change young people and how they act. This is training for police officers and training for young people. We are trying to bridge the gap between the two groups and build better long-term relationships between the community, youth and police,” Faulkner said.
The program took place over five days at West Middle School in Binghamton with the help of more than a dozen volunteers, ages 13 to 17, from Johnson City School Middle and High School, Binghamton High School and an after-school program called “The Bridge” in Johnson City. The group participated in various icebreaking and group drills, including a “Family Feud” style game based on breaking stereotypes of police and Discussions focused on police procedures, adolescent psychology and the impact of social media on police and community interactions.
“We need to understand what society sees through news and social media. What is portrayed there affects how we police,” Faulkner said. “I am not a minority. I don’t understand what it’s like to be stopped while walking down the street, maybe for no reason or just because of the color of my skin. I can’t try to say I can figure out where they’re coming from. I can try to do a better job of saying, “I’m so sorry this is what’s happening or these are the experiences you’ve had.” What can we do to try to improve it in the future? »
The young volunteers were tasked with preparing a presentation on a choice they had made in four categories (school, family, friends and community), what they learned from that choice, what it made them feel and which had an impact. They also discussed the positive and negative interactions they had with the police.
“A lot of them struggled with that, because they never spoke in front of groups. Some of them didn’t want to do it and some of them really had to be pushed, but they did it,” Faulkner said. “…These kids were amazing. They stood up in front of uniformed police and really did an incredible job of telling their stories.”
Jay Peets, a community engagement officer with the Johnson City Police Department, said it was good for young people to have the opportunity to share their views.
“When you have an officer on the street, (young people) may be afraid to explain how they feel,” Peets said. “To have them in this setting, they open up a bit more, and they are surrounded by other young people, so they are more comfortable. You really hear the stories these children tell you. And it’s great for them to open up and understand that we’re there for them.
“It’s not very often that you can walk into a room for two hours a day, five days a week and talk to someone who is in a different field, gender, ethnicity, race,” said said Richie Sebuharara, associate director of Binghamton University’s Multicultural Resource Center. “At the start of the program, the officers weren’t wearing their uniforms and some students didn’t even know they were cops. When they found out they were, they said, “Wait a minute, can the cops hang around like that?”
The week ended with a graduation ceremony and a dinner where several young people spoke about their experiences in front of the group. Participants also received a stipend in the form of a $100 Visa gift card.
The coaches hope to build on the relationships they have established with the youngsters, perhaps inviting them to sporting events, hikes, barbecues or a trip to the university’s ropes course.
“We want them to be able to come up to us and say hello, shake hands or punch us, and have a normal conversation with us,” Peets said. “…And by doing that, others will see it and I hope it’s a pendulum towards all that is good.”
Some of the young people liked the program so much that they considered organizing a fundraiser so that others could participate in the program. Faulkner hopes to secure funding to run an additional three weeks of the program, in which case he and the other trainers could run their own programs locally.
Faulkner had hoped the week would go well, but his expectations were “completely blown away”. In the end, he hopes others will see the relationship established between youth and police and that it will continue throughout the community.
“Maybe mom or dad will be like, ‘Listen, my son/daughter just got into this relationship with the police,’ he said. “Maybe now I’ll be a little more open to talking to these same police officers and understanding that they have good intentions and that not all police officers are bad.” So you start with the young people, who hopefully will extend more to their parents, brothers, sisters, their friends.