JOLIET – In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown and mass protests over police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, members of the Joliet Black Police Officers Association saw an opportunity to ensure such a thing didn’t happen in Joliet.
The organization in Joliet is part of a national, and even international, network of black police associations that aim to promote justice, fairness and effectiveness in law enforcement.
Locally, the group has a long history of emphasizing positive interactions with the community and helping to build empathy between law enforcement and the people they serve.
The group also reflects the diversity of Joliet in that it has white and Latino officers in the organization.
“We want to be able to work to enhance our relationships with the community,” said Dave Jackson, president of the BPOA.
The BPOA tries to accomplish this through a number of events throughout the year that its members attend to interact with all types of people. They also make an effort to try to educate young people about their jobs through a “know your rights” class at Joliet high schools.
Still, the BPOA is a separate organization from the Joliet Police Department. Although it is made up of members of the department and civilians, those quoted in this article do not speak for the Joliet Police Department.
Members of the BPOA argue that at school, kids are taught everything from math and science to how to drive a car, but they don’t tend to learn a lot about the law.
That’s where members of the BPOA say they want to help.
“No one tells you, outside of what you see on television, how you interact with the police,” Jackson said.
He added that the “know your rights” class came about, at least in part, because of the events in Ferguson. The class aims to make interactions with kids easier by explaining to them what exactly officers can do and why they do it, from a legal perspective.
“It’s very legal,” said Darrell Gavin, a member of the BPOA. “We tell them the laws, the legalities of a traffic stop, what an officer can and cannot do.”
They also emphasize the fact that it is possible to be heard in the event that they feel mistreated by an officer, but they add that the initial interaction might not be the place to air grievances.
The educational component of the BPOA’s work is there to help defuse a situation and keep it from escalating. But later, if someone feels they need to complain, there is a process in place to do that.
“Everyone reports to someone,” said Carlos Matlock, vice president of the BPOA. “I have a supervisor. Call for that supervisor.”
Bridging the divide
For members of the BPOA, it’s not just that their interactions with the community teach civilians how the police work. It also can be beneficial for the officers to learn more about how they are perceived in the community.
A lot of this is addressed in something called implicit bias training, which is used to address certain attitudes or stereotypes that affect people’s understanding of actions or decisions in an unconscious manner.
As an example, Brad Price used to be a police officer and president of the BPOA, and he now is a civilian. As he reflected on his experience trying to address his own biases, he remembered one incident in particular.
He was assigned to patrol one predominately black community where there tended to be a lot of drug activity. Price said that one day he noticed a car driven by a white man in the neighborhood.
“Automatically, I’m thinking, ‘OK, this guy is here to buy drugs,’ ” Price said.
He said he had a “heightened suspicion,” so he followed the man, waiting for an opportunity to pull him over for a traffic violation. He eventually did, and he found drug paraphernalia.
But he said he lost that case.
“I thought I had good probable cause for the stop,” Price said. “As I think about it, had it been my son, I would have said that was a bad search.”
It’s realizations like this that come from implicit bias training or interactions with community members that the BPOA hopes will help it do its job well. Members hope the community also will keep in mind that they are humans, too, and they make mistakes, but they are fully aware of the great responsibility they have as officers to get it right.
“It’s a fear on our end, just as it is a fear on the community’s end,” Gavin said. “Because we know, through experience and through what’s going on in the media, one bad incident here can ruin all the good that we’ve created in the communities.”