Local law enforcement leaders are taking a community program developed in Mobile across the country in an effort the improve relations between citizens and the officers.
Bridging the Gap, an FBI program that builds understanding between youth and law enforcement, was developed locally through a collaboration with FBI Special Agent Robert Lasky, Mobile Police Chief James Barber, United States Attorney Kenyen Brown, along with a team of community leaders in Mobile.
Through a series of training sessions, the program aims to give teenages and young adults perspective on the role of the law enforcement but also help establish a better relationship between the community and law enforcement officers on every level.
After two years in Mobile, other departments will get a chance to see the program in action when local law enforcement officials will discuss it at an upcoming FBI conference in Chicago.
Barber said the program, established in 2013, is already paying off locally. He said it was “amazing” to see how quickly young people become comfortable with police officers during the program, but said it helps police develop more respect for the students as well.“We are using ideas contributed by community leaders in patrol activities, to help keep encounters between citizens and police safe,” Barber said. We are creating a respectful relationship between hundreds of Bridging the Gap students and police officers, and these young people are telling their classmates they can trust the police.”
Those community leaders include: Ronald Ali, Elder Makinde A. Gbolahan, Casmarah Mani, Dr. Walter G. Bracy, Pastor Robert “Bobby” Brown, Pastor E. R. Scott, Cozy Brown, Pastor Montgomery Portis, Jr., and others — many of whom worked closely with Baber on the Second Chance Or Else (S.C.O.R.E.) program.
Mobile County School Superintendent Martha Peek contributed to the program. In addition to allowing the officers to recruit program participants through the school system, Peek has spoken to students at some of the training sessions.
Those community leaders played integral roles in making sure the program was effective and tailored to the needs of Mobile, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said.
Stimpson said during a recent press conference that the community support makes the program ‘real’ to the participants by addressing head on the relationship young people have to law enforcement today. He said the behaviors the program teaches can “keep encounters between young people and police safe and productive.”
“Mutual respect comes quickly as false information is replaced by facts,” he said. “Most of the impressions that keep youth and police from cooperating are out of date or completely inaccurate, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real for those who hold them.”
Lasky said Mobile’s FBI field office became involved early after the entire agency was challenged by FBI Director James B. Comey earlier this year.
“Director Comey said that perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation is because we’ve come to see only what we represent, at face value, instead of who we are,” Lasky said. “The director stressed that the ‘seeing’ must flow in both directions.”
Bridging the Gap accomplishes two-way communication sharing perceptions and information between youth (especially those in the ninth grade) and police officers while at the same time equipping youth with a better understanding of how their behavior and encounters with police can affect the way police officers must respond, according to Lasky.
Students from Mobile schools are chosen by their teachers to attend the program at the Mobile Police Department firing range. The program attempts to demonstrate how quickly a life or death situation can develop. They are also given the opportunity to apply what they learn during situation exercises like a mock street encounter with law enforcement.
Lasky said these demonstrations, which include the controlled use of explosives and hand-held weapons, alert young people to some of the dangers law enforcement encounter on a daily basis.Brown echoed Lasky’s statements and said it reveals details about law enforcement that most citizens aren’t aware of. In a written statement, Brown used the continuum of force as an example, which is designed to keep incidents from becoming violent. It also dictates that complaints of civil rights violations be investigated by the FBI and prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice, if they’re proved to be valid.
“All of us want the same thing— to enjoy the freedom of America and be safe,” Brown said. “Bridging the Gap is helping to take Mobile there and is poised to help people in many other cities.”
That transition to other cities is being facilitated by the FBI. Lasky said that the agency will use a video produced in Mobile to show law enforcement managers across the country the back and forth communications the program uses to improve community relations.
Special agents from the FBI’s 56 field offices across the country will see the footage and hear from both Lasky and Barber at a conference of FBI officials in Chicago early next week.
While local officials are excited over the program’s national attention, Barber said here at home it’s just another way to make sure the police tactics used in Mobile are acceptable to the communities where they’re enforced. As he has before, Baber said that acceptance is what makes them effective.
““Bridging the Gap connects the police and the people that they serve,” he said. “It is an important step in making Mobile the safest city in America with respect for everyone.”
More information about the program as well as community guidelines for both citizens and police officers can be found on the department’s website at www.mobilepd.org.
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