WESTCHESTER — As a young black man, Makeen Yasar, 21, wants to tackle the issue of police brutality head on.
A senior at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), for the past two years Yasar has worked to bring LMU students and officers from the Los Angeles Police Department together for an open dialogue, through which he hopes both parties can develop a better understanding of each other.
“I remember being in high school and seeing people who look like me dying in the news at the hands of the police,” Yasar said. “Conversations like these are important if we are looking to make active social change. We have to be able to break bread with each other and to go over these issues if we are going to come up with real, tangible solutions.”
In a time when the relationship between the LAPD and communities of color remains strained, LMU’s annual To Protect and To Serveprogram, held this year on Feb. 27, seeks to be a safe space where people can come together and have an open and honest communication about policing.
“This dialogue came about as the result of our students protesting the killing of unarmed black men and wanting to sit down with the police and really kind of hold them accountable,” said Henry Ward, senior director of ethnic and intercultural services at LMU. “There was a lot of apprehension at the beginning.
“People were wondering if they were just coming because of the bad press they were getting and there was a real skepticism around what we were doing, but we have grown beyond that and created something that really has the potential to change hearts and minds.”
The small group conversations focused on several topics, including training and implicit bias, internal investigations that take place following police-involved shootings, and the perceived lack of culpability within the judicial system with respect to the disproportionate use of deadly force on black and brown people.
The point of the conversation was for officers to develop a better sense of how they are viewed by the general public, and in turn, help students gain a glimpse inside the institution of policing.
Afterwards, students facilitated a large-group discussion that centered on the development of action steps for both groups to enable major changes in the way policing occurs in communities of color.
For participants, the one-on-one interaction is key.
“I grew up in Los Angeles and the only time that I have actually interacted with the LAPD has been at this event,” said Emely Morales, 21, a senior at LMU, who helped plan the event. “Events like this are rare. Not a lot of people are comfortable sitting in a room full of LAPD officers (but) here is a chance to come together and voice our concerns.”
Ward believes that one of the reasons the event is so successful is because participants allow themselves to connect with each other as people rather than by titles. As part of the dialogue, LAPD officers and participants are broken up into groups, so that they could get to know each other better.
“A lot of times, our interaction with the police is adversarial, and there is no chance to ask the questions you really want to ask,” Ward said. “[On the flipside], I don’t think the officers expected the type of reception they received from the students. It wasn’t just about why are you killing these unarmed black men, it was more personal. Have you ever been profiled even though you are as an officer? There were questions asked they hadn’t thought about or answered in this type of setting.”
While the discussions are facilitated and polite, they are by no means meant to be perfunctory.
“When thinking about the Los Angeles Police Department and the tenuous relationship that they have with some communities in terms of 1992 riots and the Watts Riots, there are long-standing relationships that have never really been mended, and this is an opportunity to confront that,” Yasar said.
“This is an opportunity to bridge the gap between the LAPD and everyone else,” Morales added. “We are literally molding these two groups together for a moment and getting the participants and officers in a space where they can communicate. This is not your average panel discussion. This is the community and LAPD coming together and this is also an opportunity for participants to have officers see their side. Even if we affect just one officer, we are making an impact on this issue.”
“The relationship between communities of color and the police is characterized by long-standing pain, resentment, and distrust,” said Nathan Sessoms, director of the Campus’ Office of Black Student Services. “So, it’s difficult to have a conversation focused on solutions. Ultimately, that’s what we’re working toward, though.”
“I want to add that this event is not about the officers coming here for the benefit of the students,” Yasar said. “I think that the students have a lot to offer and in terms of helping these officers understand the type of impact they have on communities of color being (and real change) can only happen when we are able to balance the two perspectives.”
Sgt. Luq Watkins, one of the participating officers, was heartened to see that youth were taking up this issue.
“I feel like that there are certain conversations around policing that need to be had and what better place to have these conversations than on a college campus,” said Watkins, a 12-year veteran of the LAPD. “Looking back at the civil rights movement and the Vietnam era, a lot of change took place because of what was happening on college campuses. We welcome conversations like this about the future of policing and our role as those who protect and serve.”
Sessoms hopes that despite the presence of conflicting perspectives participants can reach an understanding on the role policing should play in communities of color, and come up with solutions that can facilitate real, sustainable change within these communities.
“While this gathering represents a real opportunity for students at LMU to share their truths, it is a model that can be replicated in the larger community and create a dialogue that reverberates far beyond this campus’ walls,” Sessoms said.
By Angela N. Parker