This summer, 19 part-time employees are helping SPD learn a better way to interact with a particular community: youth, like themselves.
In Naji Ibrahim’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, anyone who shows too much support for law enforcement is called an “opp.”
It’s short for “opposition,” a derogatory term for police, or those labeled as informants. Usually, it’s used in jest, but it’s still not a good thing to be called one in a neighborhood where many are distrustful of cops, says Ibrahim, 17.
So when he signed up for the Seattle Youth Employment Program, looking for a summer job, Ibrahim wasn’t expecting to find one with the Seattle Police Department. He definitely didn’t expect to enjoy it.
“I used to think cops were all violent,” said Ibrahim. “On TV you see things going on in other places, and it kind of rattles you. But when you’re working with them, they’re pretty cool.”
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Ibrahim is one of 19 people ages 15-20 who were hired to work for SPD over the summer through the program, which employs low-income Seattle youth, mostly from minority backgrounds, in temporary positions in city departments or private-sector businesses.
In the past, SPD has employed only five young people, who spent the summer helping translate police documents into their native languages so they were accessible to minority communities.
This year, SPD added 14 more to their payroll as part of Mayor Ed Murray’s Summer Youth at Work Initiative, which doubled the jobs available through the program.
The new hires are all minorities — including Hispanic, East African and Asian backgrounds — and most are from South Seattle, according to Sgt. Adrian Diaz.
Their task: helping police find a way to better interact with youth.
“We’re trying to give them an understanding of what we do,” said Diaz, who oversees SPD’s Community Outreach program and the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. “It’s not an easy job, but if we can understand each other and what our goals are, our interaction with the youth is going to be a whole lot better.”
The hope is the program will improve the relationship between youth and police, encourage communication, build safer neighborhoods and improve interactions during emergency situations, Diaz said.
Faduma Edey, 15, was afraid of cops when she was hired.
She had a stereotype that police were “always the bad guy,” born from YouTube videos of police violence and the perceptions of many of her peers, she says.
But after a month in the program, she’s changed her mind. Some cops are nicer than others, she and others in the program agree — but they’re no longer so scary.
“We actually saw real police officers, not what the media tells us,” Edey said. “If more people joined this program and just told their friends and showed them who the police really are, it might spread around.”
The new hires are working to help SPD find a better way to translate that lesson to other youth, especially those who wouldn’t necessarily seek out a relationship with the police.
For the past month, they’ve been learning the job of police by sitting through presentations with various units like the SWAT team and K-9 officers, and going on field trips like a recent one to the courthouse. They’ve also been writing survey questions and hosting focus groups to determine which community and safety issues are most important to young people who live in each precinct.
By the end of the summer, they will be asked for suggestions on how an improved relationship could come about.
Ezekiel Nsamba, a 16-year-old also from South Seattle, knows what he’ll suggest. He saw an example of it last week, when he was doing a ride-along with an officer at the South Precinct.
They came across a group of kids shooting hoops, and stopped to join the game. It was exactly the kind of interaction police need to do break down stereotypes, Nsamba says.
“(Youth are) not going to like you if you don’t interact,” Nsamba said. “They’re not going to change their minds no matter what I tell them … if they don’t experience it for themselves, they won’t hear it.”
In addition to researching how to connect with young people, the group also works with SPD community-outreach officers to get in their 175 hours of summer work. They’ve done everything from guarding hydroplanes at Seafair to helping monitor traffic at the SalmonFest Seattle in Lake City last weekend.
On Friday, the group will critique the new minority-youth and law-enforcement training program, which brings together recent SPD graduates from the police academy with community youth groups. Officers will learn things like adolescent development, and the young participants will learn about the officers’ jobs. Then they’ll do training exercises such as role reversals, Diaz says.
He hopes it can build a better understanding between the two groups.
Over the past month, Diaz says, he’s seen that understanding develop in his 19 young hires. Some, like Ibrahim, have even shown an interest in joining the force.
“They’re getting something out of it. They realize that officers put on their pants the same way that they do,” Diaz said. “If we can continue that interaction with youth on a regular basis after these kids have left, that trust will grow stronger.”