This program is helping build bridges between cops and community leaders

The open dialogue format allows both groups to hear each other's expectations and concerns


By Shawn Jansen
Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.)

MERCED, Calif. — With eight police officers sitting across from him, Merced NAACP Chapter President Allen Brooks was brutally honest on a recent Friday morning.

As a longtime Merced resident, Brooks knows the divide between police and some communities isn't just restricted to cities like Minneapolis or Ferguson.

"I didn't like police," Brooks acknowledged. "I hated police and it was based on the situations I had with police before."

"A lot of people don't see you guys as human beings," he added. "All we see is a uniform, a uniform that if you're having a bad day, has the ability to take my life because your uniform has guns and Tasers."

As tense as that moment may seem to outsiders, that discussion Brooks had with police officers was actually part of a program that facilitates honest discussions between police and residents.

Brooks was invited to take part in Community Perspectives, a program put together by Merced Police Chief Tom Cavallero and directed by Capt. Joe Weiss. The role of the program is to have new police officers in training sit down with Merced community leaders to talk about a wide range of issues.

The most recent group was held April 30 on the second floor of the police station. The meeting which included new officer trainees Mitchell King, Brandon Holden, David Flores and Luis Garnica — plus five veteran officers.

For just under two hours the officers listened and discussed various topics with Brooks, Hmong Culture Camp executive director Bouasvanh Lor and Katalina Zambrano, a transgender woman representing the LGBTQ+ community.

"This is really big for us because we want our trainees to experience talking to different people within the community," Weiss said. "We want them to take the time to understand what the community wants, what their perception of police are. It's a chance for us to break down some barriers and actually interact at the human level."

Original program

While the idea to put together the Community Perspective program came from Cavallero, he didn't pattern it after any existing program other police departments were doing. He just thought it was a way to bring different people in the community and activists together with police officers.

"It dawned on me that a lot of the problems that we have in public safety, particularly law enforcement, can be headed off just through communication," Cavallero said.

Cavallero set up this program to create honest dialogue between different sectors of the community and police officers — specifically new officers.

The April 30 meeting was the sixth time the department held the Community Perspective gathering in the past year.

"Their perspectives are really important to us.." Weiss said. "They help us understand the community of Merced and what their expectations are."

"We can't change the relationship between the citizens and the police if we don't have the police involved," explained Brooks, who has been a frequent guest. "I think it's very important for us to come in, be able to talk to the new recruits, let the new recruits know about our city, our county and what we expect from them."

Discussing issues

Brooks, Lor and Zambrano all took turns addressing the group, offering their perspectives on police and their expectations of law enforcement.

For example, Lor talked about possible ways to communicate with people if officers are called out on a scene in the Hmong community. She also spoke to the police about things they should consider when responding to a tense situation, like a domestic violence call.

Lor explained because the Hmong community is very prideful, murder-suicides are not uncommon.

"For a man to kill his wife and then kill himself is very prevalent in our community," Lor told the officers. "We're still trying to address that in our own community. When you guys are out there dealing with these domestic disputes hopefully you're looking at it from the victim's lens and getting her out of the situation."

Like Brooks, Zambrano also talked about her unpleasant encounters with police officers as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

She revealed how identifying someone's correct pronouns can go a long way in making the interaction more pleasant.

""You deciding to misgender them because it's not on their paperwork, it's not what is on their ID. You deciding to make that choice to misgender them can make us feel really uncomfortable. It can make us feel like you're not going to respect us in the conversation we're about to have," she said.

Brooks told the officers how two positive interactions with law enforcement after he moved to Merced from Milwaukee changed his outlook on police.

He mentioned how the spotlight is on police now after recent incidents like the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin. "What (Chauvin) did affects the uniform you put on and how people kind of look at it. A lot of people have changed from that incident. It's in the forefront now," Brooks said.

Another perspective

Brooks wanted the new officers to know what's going on in the mind of the people they pull over, especially from the perspective of a Black man.

For example, Brooks said if he was pulled over for a traffic stop and the officer walked up with his hand on his gun, it would automatically make him afraid.

"We haven't even talked and your body language is saying you want to shoot," Brooks explained.

The discussion went both ways as the officers brought up recent calls they've gone on.

Weiss said officers should be professional and explain why they made a stop. He also said officers are often in a tough situation when pulling over vehicles, particularly late at night. That's because anything can happen and officers have to be ready for it.

However, Weiss said officers should also consider the driver and passengers may also be nervous. For example, Weiss said an officer may have just watched videos online of cops getting shot. On the other hand, the driver of the vehicle the officer pulled over may have seen videos of officers shooting someone.

"We're all nervous about these things," Weiss explained.

All four of the new officer trainees said the time spent was valuable. They've spent the past few weeks in a classroom setting learning things from an officer's perspective. They said it was interesting to hear stories from another person's perspective.

"I think it's a great idea, we've been doing it for a while. I think once again, Merced is a small community, I think it allows us to take the officers in as public servants, somebody who is going to serve the public, somebody who is going to be out there," Brooks said.

"I think it's a great opportunity for them to get to know their community."

(c)2021 the Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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