Can ‘community ambassadors’ untangle Richmond’s relationship with the police?
on November 15, 2017
Richmond Police Sgt. Florencio Rivera lifts a thick leather belt from the trunk of his police cruiser. He points to several objects dangling from it — pepper spray, handcuffs, riot baton, pistol, Taser — and explains: These are just stand-ins. The baton is made of foam, the Taser is unloaded, and the pistol fires Airsoft pellets. Together, they represent a pretend version of the “duty kit” carried by Richmond officers.
Rivera is supervising a mock scenario as part of the department’s Community Safety Academy, a class offered to residents. Today, attendees will participate in three simulations where they must make decisions and respond in real time to civilians and suspects, all played by police officers. The activity is designed to simulate situations cops encounter on the job, and all three are based on real-life incidents.
Lt. Felix Tan founded the community class last year to address what he calls the “trust gap” between Richmond police and members of the public. He said the academy’s intention is to open RPD’s doors to the community, and to confront mistrust with transparency.
“This class is not all about force,” he said. “This is just one little sliver.”
Students meet weekly at the police station. Over the course of several months, they learn about varied roles and operations within their local precincts — including crime scene investigation, officer training, leadership structure within the force and city government, and the police’s civilian-led internal affairs team.
Janice Wells, a student in the class, said she signed up to learn more about the city she lives in after years of serving as a social worker elsewhere around the bay. Due to her background, she described the first scenario as a familiar one: a drunk man making a scene in public, and she needed to get him under control.
In the simulation, Wells tried to engage with the intoxicated man, who was much larger than her, and who didn’t immediately respond to her commands. The situation was a challenge. “It took a few minutes — and I almost shot him,” said Wells, ruefully. “As a mental health worker, I’d never shoot somebody for being intoxicated. Clearly that was not the best first place to go.”
Wells said she drew her weapon as a precaution, to make it clear that he needed to follow her directions. “It made me think about the fact that having a weapon makes you approach things differently,” she said. “How do you de-escalate a situation when you’re working with somebody who really doesn’t have any respect for you? I think that’s the hardest situation to be in.”
Concerns over use of force cuts to the core of public discussion about law enforcement. On one hand, police actions repeatedly turn deadly — resulting in anguish, frustration, and fury from the public. On the other hand, law enforcement agencies maintain that their officers have dangerous jobs and need tools to defend themselves.
This national conversation continues to fracture along racial, political, and geographic lines. And in a city like Richmond, that can translate to conflicting attitudes toward the police.
Kathleen Good is a retired teacher. She signed up for the class in order to “stay connected” to the community where she has lived and worked for the past 18 years. She volunteers with a handful of community safety and violence-prevention groups, including CERT and CeaseFire, in addition to the RPD class.
Her most memorable simulation of the day? A young man, carrying a gun, who was threatening to commit suicide when Good arrived.
“Based on my personality, not any police training, I just approached as a caregiver [and] listener,” she said. The result: “He shot me, anyway.”
Good said she understood where the officers thought she went wrong — she’d refused to pull her gun, even as a precaution. But she also found it difficult to reconcile a civilian mentality with the police line of thinking. “Their focus was more on the physical attributes of the situation, and mine was more on the emotional content,” she said.
“If I show you my firearm, that sends a message that there are limits,” said Lt. Tim Simmons, debriefing the simulation with students. In some situations, Simmons said, officers can use the weapon “as a deterrent.”
But Good’s reticence to draw her weapon, even on an armed man, was echoed by other students in the class.
“I figured if I just walked up with a gun in my hand it would make it worse,” said Duad Abdullah, an artist who creates mosaics in public spaces around Richmond.
Abdullah has been skeptical of other topics presented in the class. During an earlier session, he questioned one officer’s response after body-cam footage depicted a young man being Tased at the Richmond BART station. But on an individual level, Abdullah said, his opinion of the police has changed for the better.
As part of a ride-along assignment for the class, he spent several shifts with beat officers going about their routines. Spending time with them, and watching them interact with community members, was enough for him to form a more positive impression.
“I definitely look at law enforcement in a different light,” Abdullah said.
He views the class as an olive-branch in response to national tensions surrounding racism, violence and the police. He was drawn to the community academy because, as he put it, “I’m an African-American male.”
“I can’t speak for everyone,” Abdullah said. “But you have a lot of people, particularly African-American people, who just don’t trust police. And there’s nothing you can say that’s going to change it.”
Now, Abdullah views his role as that of an ambassador. He works with young people as a community artist, and said he plans to at least give cops the benefit of the doubt in conversations with Richmond’s youth.
“I mean, if they’re opening up their doors and they’re giving us this transparency, then I feel it’s my right to go back out and let people know, you know, all police aren’t bad,” he said.
George Gutierrez is another lifelong Richmond resident, with aspirations to become an officer. He said his own experience talking with friends and family about law enforcement has highlighted the deep-rooted feelings some Richmond residents have about police.
“A lot of families from Mexico come with this mentality that you don’t trust cops,” he said. “‘They’re corrupt, right?’ And then, what you see on social media, on the news, is this police officer involved in some type of misconduct. That just confirms what they already think.”
At the same time, as Tan acknowledged, most of the current students aren’t true skeptics — each of them trusts the police enough to dedicate their evenings to learning more. But Tan said creating more “community ambassadors” is the first step, as he sees it, to repairing fractured trust.
Good agrees, though she added that trust goes both ways. In her estimation, the Richmond police still have work to do, as well.
“I think more and more of the officers should live in the community,” she said. “I understand getting a bigger house, a bigger yard and better schools for your children. Everybody wants that. But I think officers, firemen, politicians, everybody — if they want to serve Richmond they should live here.”
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