Our way of working

This material is for people who want to take a deep dive into how we’ve done our work.

Our process involved going deep over time with a small group of officers and community members, without knowing at the start what action steps we would eventually take.  We’ve been meeting every other week for two hours using the Families and Democracy Model developed by Bill Doherty and colleagues.  We started meeting in January 2017.

Phase One: Relationship Building

We did months of relationship building through storytelling.  We started with everyone’s stories of early experiences with police officers.  We moved to our stories of early experiences with Black men and then with White men.  Everyone had five minutes to tell their stories, followed by reflections from the rest of the group.  These stories were often poignant and powerful, and they included both infuriating and uplifting stories about community members and police.  We all talked about our fathers, again with sad stories and positive stories.  We got to know each other as human beings.  We had some conflict during this phase of our work, but mostly we focused on understanding one another.  We were building trust for the next phase.

Phase Two: Moving into More Turbulent Waters

As we engaged more difficult topics, we used a structured process where everyone got a chance to talk and be heard, with no expectation that we would come to a consensus any time soon.  Sometime we went around the group to get everyone’s voice in before more general conversation.  Sometimes a community member and a police officer engaged each other in rapid-fire back and forth conversation, with the rest of group quiet and then reflecting later on what they heard, felt, and thought.

An important milestone came with how we processed the Jamar Clark police shooting that had led to weeks of demonstrations and an encampment outside the Fourth Police Precinct in the same neighborhood where our meetings occurred.  Our conversations were highlighted by sometimes heated exchanges between a Black officer who had been responsible for maintain safety during the occupation and a Black community member who had been involved in the occupation (and who had led earlier protests about policing).  The “heat” in these exchanges generated “light” as the two men came to better understand where each was coming from, and they found some common ground.  Neither was a villain in the other’s story.

Phase Three: Processing New Events

The thing about meeting for a long time is that distressing new events are likely to occur.  We dealt with two new police shootings of civilians, one of an unarmed White woman and one of an armed and fleeing Black man.  Community members learned about the anguish that the officers felt about these shootings, and officers learned about how generations of mistrust of law enforcement left community members feeling mainly outraged but sometimes numb—and not focused (in the way the officers were) on the details of whether the shooting was legally justified.  In our conversations, the officers came to show emotion in addition to focusing on the details of the incident, and community members became willing to talk about what had happened the officers’ perspectives as well as their own perspectives.  Through it all, we kept returning to the same table, not giving up on one another or our mission.  Sometimes there were tears and hot anger, but we kept coming back to the table.

Phase Four: A Brotherhood Forms

As the months went by, group members began to talk about their sense of friendship and even brotherhood.  We were proud to have difficult conversations and stay in relationship.  We recalled and laughed about some of our “greatest hits” arguments and teased the two members who has served as gladiators for their own side.  When one of them missed a meeting, group members would ask who was going to step into their combatant role!  The group began to tease Bill the facilitator about his tight control of the process, a control became less needed over time.

As the climate in the group became more open, the officers increasingly shared their experiences with the human tragedies and scary situations on the job.  Some also recounted stories of being taunted and ridiculed on the streets because of how the public judged the actions of other officers after police shootings.  A community offered this common perspective: “You’re being profiled.”  One meeting focused on supporting an officer who had come upon a horrific crime scene and was having trouble sleeping.  Another meeting focused on supporting a community member who was struggling to not give up hope for personal and community change.

As we talked about the larger context of policing and the Black community, we had a breakthrough realization about stereotyping: that Police and Black men are subject to the common, dehumanizing stereotypes in the larger culture.  Both are seen as violent, dangerous, impulsive, educated, and having broken families.  This realization led to a series of conversations about how Police and Black men are set up as scapegoats for broader societal problems.  Crime is a byproduct of neighbors lacking in jobs, housing, and other resources blamed on the community members themselves.  Police are then sent in to control situations they did not create and in communities that do not trust them.  A sense began to emerge in our group that both sides have a common “enemy” and that they are pitted against each other in a way that dehumanizes both sides.’

Phase Five: Developing Our Narrative

After we knew we had formed something solid, we decided to develop a common narrative to describe what we believed about the sources of mistrust between Police and Black men, what we envisioned for a better future, and what we could do together.  A key step was the decision to focus on the goal of community safety, not just better policing, because community safety is much bigger than policing.  A safe community, we knew, was one that fosters healthy relationships—and these relationships require the basics of good jobs, safe housing, and access to quality education and health care.

We agreed that one of the community members in the group led us through a process he had learned in creating a common narrative.   Some homogeneous groups develop their narrative statement in a few hours of workshop.  Ours took months of bi-weekly meetings partly because we had other things to talk about but partly because we had to struggle to find language we could all agree on.  We knew we had to all stand behind every idea and word in the narrative.

As we finished the narrative document we realized that we were breaking new ground in the public conversation about Police and the Black community.  We decided that in order to make a public impact, we had to name and push back against two most current competing narratives and their solutions: the Just-Change-the-Police Narrative versus the Just-Be-More-Responsible. These ways to frame the solution put the Police and the community against each other, and neither approach alone leads to safer communities.  We declared our narrative as Shared Partnership for Community Safety.  Safe communities are good for community members and good places for Police to work and live.  And that means that both the Police and the community have as stake in creating the social and structural conditions for safe communities: housing security, jobs, education, health care, and other factors.  The housing issue grabbed us the most because one of our members was in the midst of housing insecurity and the officers talked about messy and dangerous domestic violence calls coming from fights over who was going to stay in a house or leave with no where to go. And the officers viscerally loathed having to move homeless people buildings where they were warm into the deep winter cold where they had no shelter.

Phase Six: Initiating Action Steps

When we turned our focus to what we would do together, it was obvious.  We would work on three levels:

  • Community conversations to listen, to share our narrative and our story of what’s possible for Police and Black men to do together, and to invite community members to connect with our work
  • Involvement in police training so that we could influence the next generation of officers.
  • Advocacy for systemic change, with an initial focus on safe, affordable housing.

We began the community conversations after developing desired outcomes and a plan.  The initial gatherings, which included a class students at Henry High (through the Minneapolis Schools Office of Male Male Student Achievement), and men in the FATHER Project in Minneapolis, were rich and powerful.  When we asked these groups to share with us, they talked about their fears and mistrust of the Police, and then when asked to envision of safe community, they spontaneously came up with the elements of our narrative of Shared Partnership for Community Safety.  We knew we were onto something.

Our final step before going public was a meeting Police Chief Arradondo who thoroughly embraced our mission and plan. He gave us the go ahead to be involved in police training and embraced our idea of the Police Department advocating for safe housing as public safety issue.  He subsequently began that public advocacy. 

Afterword – from Bill Doherty

This story of our work together sounds more coherent looking back than it felt going through it.  Most of us wondered at times whether we would hold together. The jury is still out about what difference we will make in our community, and if other communities will want to take the same path of doing deep before taking action. We don’t know if we’ll be able to climb the mountain to its peak, but we do think we’re climbing the right mountain towards the goal of community safety for all.