'Walk a mile in my shoes': Building empathy between cops and communities

Helping officers protect, serve and understand is the goal of the Irondale Ensemble Project's theatrical program

This article originally appeared in the November 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Values-based policing | Building empathy | Educating the public, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.

Building better police-community relations is the goal of every law enforcement leader that requires many different strategies to reach myriad members of the community. Building empathy between cops and civilians is key, but how does an agency accomplish that when there seems to be a chasm between public perception of police and the realities of serving as an officer in today's world?

Through its theatrical program, “To Protect, Serve, and Understand,” the Irondale Ensemble Project has been working with NYPD officers to bridge that gulf.

“We seek to build deeper understanding and trust between communities and police using the transformative power of theater,” said Terry Greiss, executive director of the Irondale Ensemble Project.

"To Protect, Serve, and Understand" brings the public together with local law enforcement. (Irondale Ensemble)

Build communication and empathy

In 2015, Irondale invited the New York Police Department to develop a community program that would use theatrical improvisation to build communication and empathy between officers and the communities they are charged to protect and serve.

Over the course of 10 weeks, officers and community members attend workshops and tell each other stories based on their experiences, where they learn to improvise so they can “step into each other’s shoes.” The participants also partake in public performances, attended by community members, with the goal of developing mutual trust and empathy through storytelling.

Bringing law enforcement and the public together in this creative way has impacted everyone involved. Greiss says the program has influenced law enforcers and the citizens who come in contact with them.

“I have seen police officers leave the program with a clearer understanding of how they are perceived by the people they are sworn to protect and serve,” said Greiss. “I have seen them 'walk in the shoes' of people who fear them and I have watched friendships replace fear.”

How the program works

Workshop participants first participate in a sit-down dinner where they discuss hot topic issues surrounding policing, including many of the tragedies experienced by civilians and police officers over the past few years.

“Post-meal conversations become highly charged and emotional as extremely sensitive topics are discussed,” said NYPD Officer Miguel VanBrakle. “Once the meal is over and the improvisation begins, the workshop exercises force the participant to walk in each other’s shoes.”

VanBrakle says the juxtaposition of sharing your point of view and then having to play out another person’s experience, which may be the exact opposite of your own, leads to each person changing their original viewpoints of either policing or civilian experience with police.

“That deep level of understanding bonds the participants to each other in ways that transcend their current life and role, either as a civilian or a police officer,” said VanBrakle. 

VanBrakle says the program has helped him hone the skills he has developed during his career in law enforcement while providing him with additional tools to help understand and empathize with the community he serves.

“From active listening and slowing things down to fully understand the nature of a problem or situation, as well as examining my own perceptions and preconceptions, it has allowed me to see what is really going on,” said Vanbrakle. “On a personal level, it helped bring about a paradigm shift in how I interact and communicate while at work and at home.”

Law enforcement and civilians alike benefit from this endeavor.
Law enforcement and civilians alike benefit from this endeavor. (Irondale Ensemble)

Changing perspectives

Greiss says the program has the power to change an individual’s perspectives and behavior: “Officers have told me that they ‘police differently now,’ and that they listen more acutely.” The program has also given confidence to civilians who may have been afraid of the police. Communication, understanding and transparency all help achieve better community relations.

“Having the chance to have community members who may be apprehensive toward police and policing but are at least willing to try to communicate and interact in this program is invaluable in today’s climate,” said VanBrakle. “All the while developing and reinforcing communication techniques that can bring more positive outcomes during police interactions with the public.”

“To Protect, Serve, and Understand” is an excellent way to accomplish these goals through a positive, creative and attention-grabbing outlet. To date, 53 police officers and 53 civilians have participated in seven series of workshops. Performances have seen audiences at capacity, with more than 2,500 community members attending. Departments interested in the program can learn more at https://irondale.org/to-protect-serve-and-understand/.

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