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Strategy: City-Wide Study Circles

Strategy Submitted by Angela N. Jones www.unitedneighborhoods.org COMMUNITY PROBLEM ADDRESSED At the heart of all good policing initiatives is . . .

Strategy Submitted by Angela N. Jones
www.unitedneighborhoods.org


COMMUNITY PROBLEM ADDRESSED

At the heart of all good policing initiatives is Trust - Trust between the community, Trust between the police and Trust between the Community and Police. Lack of trust - whether it be the result of racially-biased policing, an apathetic and tired community, misinformation given through the media, or just a lack of respect for one another is the core of all deficient policing initiatives and impedes a community's ability to protect its residents and work together to resolve crime and other problems.  The Study Circle Program offers a method by which to engage members of "perceived" opposing sides and forces them to get to know each other in a non-threatening, honest environment.   

STRATEGY USED TO ADDRESS THE PROBLEM

Modified the Study Circles Facilitation Model into a three to four week facilitated discussion group between police officers and members of the community that focused on identifying specific ways to reduce racially-biased policing, promote community policing and encourage mutual respect and trust within the City of Buffalo between the Police and the Community.

KEY COMPONENTS OF THE PROGRAM

This project used a facilitated discussion model developed by the Study Circles Resource Center and modified it to fit the issue of racially-biased policing and police-citizen interaction. Facilitators were trained in leading the study circle, and recorders were trained in documenting the discussion. Members of the community were recruited from block clubs, teen programs, senior centers, and the Muslim community. Police officers received a brief orientation regarding the study circles process and their role as participants. Police officers and community members were recruited by neighborhood or district. This was a key component for this program.  It was important to have police officers in the same room with community members that live in the district they police and vice-versa.  It is very important to have the same police officers as well as the same community members from beginning to end so that we could build upon what was accomplished the week before instead of backtracking to bring new members up to speed.  Thus, it is important that each participant understand the four-week commitment that is involved.  

We held a series of study circle during the fall and another in the spring.  Holding the first set of study circles enabled us to critique the program and improve or modify parts of the process that we felt would contribute to making the program better.  Monthly partner meetings were held to keep track of the progression of the program and go over any changes we needed to make to the program.

In an effort to engage the youth in our City we included two additional components geared specially to the youth. First, we developed a competition called Community Feud.  Community Feud is an adaptation; on the television show Family Feud.  The questions presented during the Community Feud game are based on local trivia, entertainment, music, fashion, community policing and crime.  We solicited the help of a local youth group called Late Nite Noise Youth Group, to prepare and conduct a local survey to generate the answers for the game.  The competition was held at two youth summits and one youth police academy conference.  The teams consisted of four youth and two police officers.  We used this game to promote collaborations between the police community and youth and as a way for youth to begin to see police officers as members in their communities not just the "enemy".  Second, we held a study circle session specifically for youth ages fifteen to twenty-one.  It was evident from the results generated during this study circle that although the community shares similar issues regardless of age, the way in which younger and older individuals approach the solutions are different.

Upon completion of the entire study circle program the University at Buffalo Regional Community Policing Center in conjunction with United Neighborhoods analyzed the recommendations and complied a list of over 170 recommendations.  The recommendations were then presented at and Action Forum to the community, the Buffalo Police Department, area politicians and the media in the form of an interactive dramatization produced by Dramatic Solutions.

The recommendations from the study circles and Action Forum are the basis for the following agreed upon actions: (1) training for officers in youth culture, (2) use of facilitated discussion to address conflicts between community groups, (3) increased emphasis on improving customer service for the police department, (4) the formation of more meetings between the police and community to work together to address crime and other problems, (5) the creation of an implementation advisory committee, and (6) a "Where are We Now" status report in October of 2003.

KEY PARTNERSHIPS

The United Neighborhood Study Circle Program was organized by United Neighborhoods - which at the time of the grant submission was an initiative of United Way of Buffalo & Erie County and the Margaret L Wendt Foundation. However, it is now a program under the Community Action Organization of Erie County dedicated to building grassroots community capacity through block clubs and other neighborhood organizations. Their primary partner was the Buffalo Police Department (BPD) who received a grant from Department of Justice's Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services for "Promoting Cooperative Strategies to Reduce Racial Profiling." The BPD arranged for officer participation in the study circles and their Community-Oriented Policing Satellite (COPS) Station staff assisted with recording and planning of the circles. 

Other partners included the United Way of Buffalo and Erie Co. who provided facilitators for the study circles, the University at Buffalo Regional Community Policing Center who observed, evaluated and documented the process and outcome of the study circles in form of a Technical Guide, Dramatic Solutions who produced interactive dramatizations based on the study circles, Television Time who produced two videos documenting the project and Late Nite Noise Youth Group, who assisted in the creation of Community Feud and youth engagement. The partners met monthly throughout the process to plan the circles, review progress and discuss and address obstacles.

POTENTIAL OBSTACLES

  • Originally, we hoped for twenty study circles based on a previous round held on community policing issues in 2001. Recruitment for the study circles was a challenge in part because there was no precipitating event to stimulate interest the specific issue of racial profiling in the City of Buffalo.  It was difficult to keep participants focused on racial profiling or racially-biased policing.  Thus many of our recommendations reflect community policing issues rather than racially-biased policing issues.  
  • Most community participants were concerned with youth loitering on corners and crime problems in their neighborhoods.   The grant used to support this particular program wanted us to focus on racially-biased policing.  Thus, we found ourselves in a quandary as to how to stay within the parameters of the grant but also address the most immediate needs of the community.  I think we succeeded at striking a good balance. 
  • Lack of funding was another obstacle for the program.  During the middle of the program, two major funding sources of the United Neighborhoods Program ended and the suppliers of these funds elected not to continue funding United Neighborhoods as an initiative.  The lack of funding for United Neighborhoods caused a temporary hiatus for the Study Circle Program.  The hiatus caused a discontinuation of the monthly Partner's meetings and caused a break in communication between the partners and community during the middle of the project. The Partner meetings are crucial to making sure the project runs smoothly and correcting problems that may arise along the way.  The hiatus slowed the project down significantly.


CASE STUDY

Case Study: Senior - Youth Conflicts

Two study circles were held with seniors at community centers in the City of Buffalo. At one of the circles, the issue of youth in the community who intimidated the seniors or caused problems in the neighborhood (littering, graffiti) was of primary concern. The seniors also resented how the youth sometimes obstructed their entry to the community center, and they did not feel comfortable sharing the community center with the youth. While the police were not the focus of the conflict they were a necessary part of resolving the conflict as they knew of programs available in the community to have youth help seniors. The seniors' opinion and view of youth was based entirely on what they had observed in their neighborhoods but when they met one of the persons from the Buffalo Weed and Seed Program who works with youth they saw the youth from a different perspective. When the youth offered to shovel the snow from their driveways, the seniors offered to bring them hot chocolate and perhaps even hold a party at the community center.

Due to the fact that many of the issues that arose during the program involved youth in some way, the Implementation Advisory Committee that was formed as a result of this process will have youth representation as well as representation from organizations that deal primarily with the youth.

OUTCOME OR IMPACT ACHIEVED

  • Community or Volunteer Engagement/Mobilization
  • Facilitated Community Partnerships or Coalition Building
  • Enhanced Public Awareness (of problem, services, prevention techniques)
  • Outreach to an Under-served Population
  • Community Capacity Building
  • Developed Unique or Innovative Crime Prevention Material

SIGNS OF SUCCESS

In surveys conducted after each study circle was completed, 80% of the participants said that their ability to discuss issues openly and frankly increased; 54% said that their understanding of their own attitudes and beliefs increased; 72% said that their understanding of others' attitudes and beliefs increased and 60% said that their ability to communicate more effectively with people who may have different beliefs increased. Also, 64% of the participants said that as a result of the study circles their understanding of the police and their work had increased.

Many people commented that they enjoyed the open discussions and hearing others points of view. One participant particularly appreciated "the fact that people of many ethnic backgrounds and professions could come together to discuss the problems in this community that are affecting all of us, especially our youth." One police officer commented on how surprised he was that the community was so supportive--most of his encounters with people are negative and this gave him a chance to see the community as an ally rather than as a threat.

Another sign of success is that community groups are using the process for addressing conflicts between each other (see the Muslim Study Circle case study). Also, the Buffalo Study Circles project was referenced in a recent book on Racially-Biased Policing: A Principle Response (Lorie Fridell, et al., Police Executive Research Forum, 2001) as a promising practice for minority community outreach. It was also selected for a panel on "Promising Methods for Addressing Police Integrity" at the 2nd Annual National Community Policing Conference: Working Together for Safer Communities in Washington D.C. in June 2003.

United Neighborhoods in conjunction with the Late Nite Noise Youth Group formed a collaboration to used the Community Feud Competition in the local High Schools and have it aired on Late Nite Noise the television show.

As a result of their participation in the Muslim Study Circle and the final Action Forum, the Western New York Regional Branch of the National Community for Community & Justice requested to be invited to sit on the Implementation Advisory Committee and has offered their support towards the actions identified during the Action Forum.  

As a result of his participation in the Muslim Study Circle Minister Dennis Muhammad the Founder and CEO of the ENOTA Program, which stands for "Educating Neighborhoods To Obey Those in Authority" Bridging the Gap between Community and Law Enforcement has agreed to solicit the support of the Study Circle Program Partners and other community leaders to expand his program into the City of Buffalo New York. 

TIPS FOR APPLYING THE STRATEGY

  • For this program to work well, partners must meet on at least a monthly basis to plan, discuss obstacles, and provide needed resources & support for the coordinator. 
  • Facilitators are key to this process and must be trained in how to establish and maintain ground rules for the discussions, how to remain neutral and how to keep the discussions on track. The Study Circles Resource Center (www.studycircles.org) has excellent materials for planning and conducting study circles and for training facilitators. 
  • Recruitment of community members for four weekly sessions can be difficult. We are considering reducing the number of sessions to three or even two to get wider participation. It is also essential that one or more of the partners be well-connected to the community in order to get good participation through informal connections.
  • It is important to never give up and remain flexible.  You will face many obstacles while engaged in this process because you are engaging real human with real problems.  The program and its partners have to be flexible enough to know when to go with the tide of the discussion but committed enough to finding solutions that you keep the participants on track. 
  • Build a solid team.  The partners you chose to implement this program with you must be in it for the long haul.  If they are not, you may want to passing them over and looking for another partner or moving forward with a smaller core group.  
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