For the past six months LeBow undergraduate students have been tackling one of the most talked about public issues – the relationship between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. They recently received honorable mention recognition for their work in developing the RETIRE It program as part of the Department of Justice’s Peer 2 Peer: Building Community Trust initiative.
The goal of the consulting course and student proposal was to develop a program that would dispel mistrust between millennials and law enforcement by empowering high school students aged 13 to 19 to get to know police officers. RETIRE It was piloted in the West Philadelphia community during the spring term and included a social media component, as did most of the other collegiate submissions, but it focused significantly on physical opportunities for education and engagement, which set it apart.
RETIRE It hosted three distinct events for students from West Catholic High School and Covenant House in partnership with the Drexel University Police Department (DUPD) and Recreational Athletics under the leadership of Police Chief Eileen Behr and Assistant Director of Recreation Drew Deming.
A classroom program brought members of DUPD to West Catholic to discuss how police officers are trained to make decisions in the field by using simulations where students could implement the decision-making model in real life situations. Additionally, the team hosted a slam poetry competition at West Catholic in which students and law enforcement officers expressed their feelings via poetry for a chance to win prizes. Finally, rock climbing in the Drexel Recreation Center featured teams of DUPD officers and students from the two programs working together.
The class had access to decades of local law enforcement expertise in developing their plan, including former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, Brian Michael of the Department of Homeland Security and Detective Eric Rios of the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office. Ramsey recently joined Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation as a distinguished visiting fellow following his retirement from the Philadelphia Police Department. He joined the class on multiple occasions to review the students’ proposal and offer feedback.
The LeBow team’s activity-based programming impressed Ramsey. “Most programs focusing on community policing are not activity based, they are mostly discussion based and happening in classrooms,” he said.
The LeBow team, advised by clinical professor Dana D’Angelo and adjunct professor Andy Macaleer, felt the need to create a program that would be educational, fun and sustainable. Ultimately, the most successful program involved students from the Covenant House and West Catholic and Drexel police officers climbing together at the Drexel rock wall.
Ramsey explained the effectiveness of this program’s approach, asking, “If you can trust me to hold the rope for you not to fall, why don’t you trust me to protect your life?”
Through surveys, student participants showed increased levels of trust after just one climbing event. Before the program, only 22 percent of students said they strongly or partially trusted law enforcement. Following the program, this increased to 56 percent with the largest increase in students who said they strongly trusted them. Students also noted they felt more comfortable talking with police officers and saw more need for the community and police to respect each other after participation in the program.
“I’m really proud to be a part of this initiative,” says Deming. “At the rock wall we focus on communication and trust. During the climbing experience the youth and officers are engaged with each other in personal, human-to-human interaction. At the end, the hope is that both the police and youth understand each other better.”
These efforts didn’t just benefit the high school students who were the focus of the program. Chief Behr notes that the officers involved learned a great deal about the fears and concerns of students in the community.
“The opportunity to listen to and learn from students and become involved in productive, sometime spirited, conversations was dynamic. Our officers looked forward to the days and hours spent with the students,” she said. “As a police department, we hope to have gained some trust from the students we protect every day and hope we can take what we have learned forward into the community.”
Even the students from the consulting course were impacted by the project. “While I have always respected police officers for their service, working on this project helped me cut through the media veil put up around the actions of law enforcement officials,” said senior marketing major Roger Kfoury. “It changed the way I approach those who serve their communities, and I find myself going out of my way to greet or thank an officer if I am able to do.”
While the class was not selected as one of the top two programs to present their proposal in Washington DC, they received positive feedback from program coordinators noting strength in the identification of their target market, utilization of creative activities and engagement of campus police officers.
Edventure recognized the top 5 teams on their Facebook page. “[They] displayed exceptional creativity, strategy and execution to reach objectives and make an impact over the course of the spring term. We thank the participating students and supporting faculty members for their hard work and dedication to the program.”
Even though the class has ended, DUPD and Recreational Athletics have continued hosting monthly rock climbing activities with Covenant House students and officers, including a debrief discussion designed to address and break down stereotypes between police and the community.