By Thomas E. Mitchell, Jr.
Since starting his tenure as Milwaukee Police Chief in 2008, Edward Flynn has made it a point to improve police-community relations, especially within the Black community, where there is a history of mistrust and hostility going back to the so-called “bad ol’ days” of former MPD Chief Harold Brier.
Progress has been made to improve the relationship since Brier stepped down in the early 80s. Subsequent Milwaukee police chiefs have tried, with mixed results, to improve their officers’–and the department’s–standing in the eyes of the Black community, which has born the brunt of police misconduct, some of which was (and is) racist in nature.
Flynn has been no different. While there have been set-backs in the last few years between MPD and the community in creating trust and communication, the chief has not wavered from his commitment to create a positive relationship between the police and those they are sworn to protect and serve.
One such effort instituted by Chief Flynn in 2010 tries to improve police-community relations on the “front end,” by focusing on the community’s youth and creating a positive image in their minds of Milwaukee police officers based not only on trust, but knowledge of what officers can legally do and not do, how they do what they do, and why.
S.T.O.P. (Students Talking it Over with Police) is a program created by Flynn and members of the MPD. The mission of the program is to change the negative perceptions youth have about police due to a lack of maturity, little to no understanding of police methods, procedures and practices, negative perceptions created by peers and fear.
Under a directive from Chief Flynn, the Community Prosecution Unit at the District Five police station was given the challenge of creating a program that would address youth in the community and explain to them what it is the police do and why they do it.
Through the S.T.O.P. program, MPD hopes to reduce the chances of an initial volatile interaction and cultivate sustainable positive relationships.
If you haven’t heard of S.T.O.P., you’re not alone. Very few outside the MPD, the Milwaukee public and private schools and community-based organizations and universities involved in the program; as well as the students who have gone through it, know about the initiative.
That’s a critical shortcoming Assistant Milwaukee Police Chief Edith Hudson and Police Captain Peter Pierce of the Neighborhood Policing Bureau are determined to change.
Not only do they and Chief Flynn want to make this program work (which it does, based on what a MCJ reporter saw at a recent S.T.O.P session at Fifty-third Street School), they want to make it the crown jewel of the department’s efforts to improve its relationship with the community.
During an interview at the offices of the Milwaukee Urban League with the organization’s president Ralph Hollmon, who organized the meeting, Hudson and Pierce described the S.T.O.P program and the positive impact it’s making in the community and among its youth in the short time it’s been in existence.
According to S.T.O.P.’s 2013 annual report, 540 students participated in the program.
Hudson said S.T.O.P. is part of the Office of Community Outreach and Education, which is a revived version of the Community Services Division, which was eliminated after former Milwaukee Police Chief Arthur Jones left office.
“It was Chief Flynn’s idea to create a program that would engage juvenile youth and help them understand police functions,” Hudson said.
The Department has five partner organizations involved in the S.T.O.P. program: The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, Milwaukee Public Schools, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Alverno College and the Milwaukee county District Attorney’s Office.
Several private and charter schools are also involved in the program. S.T.O.P is in 43 schools.
Hudson and Pierce said the Department is cognizant that police/juvenile contacts too often become volatile, where force is used, causing life threatening and non-life threatening injuries.
In situations where physical force was not a factor, arrest and detention of these youths was still too often a final outcome of their interaction with the police.
Captain Pierce and officers at District Five created, developed and presented their first session in 2010. After the first session, the officers realized their audience was bigger than the youth in District Five.
As a result, the officers of District Five began to cultivate relationships with other organizations and institutions in order to establish a collaboration of entities for a STOP pilot program.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee helped MPD conduct the pilot program with some 600 youth chosen by the Boys and Girls Clubs.
There were 18 S.T.O.P. pilot sessions conducted, with MPD officers presenting the pilot to 160 youth and UWM researchers presenting the program to 142 youth.
Approximately 175 students who participated did not get any material presented to them. They instead were given a pre and post-test.
After the evaluation was completed, the UWM researchers produced a final report detailing specific findings regarding S.T.O.P. implementation and effectiveness.
In the UWM report, the researchers found the following:
• The S.T.O.P. group had significantly improved police perception on the post-test
• There was an increase in general police knowledge
• The S.T.O.P. group experienced higher conduct knowledge
• Approximately 92% of the youth said they felt better about police.
• Seventy-seven percent of the youth said most of their concerns were addressed during the S.T.O.P. sessions.
• Ninety-two percent of the youth said they would recommend the program to a family member, and 83% said they would recommend the program to a friend.
To better serve all 150 Milwaukee public schools when the program was implemented in full in 2012, the MPD’s Office of Community Outreach and Education decided to have a resource officer available to serve a number of schools within a region.
“The chief wanted us to operate (the program) more efficiently,” Hudson said. “Chief Flynn has given us the latitude to do what the community wants, unlike other chiefs. He expects us to make it (S.T.O.P.) work.”
Milwaukee Police officers in the S.T.O.P. program were required to complete 32 hours of training (called the “train-the-trainer” program) that taught them how to facilitate students (ages 12-17) in an urban education setting.
The training covered methodologies provided by the Alverno College educational staff, which taught them how to implement the S.T.O.P. program.
The initiative was officially implemented in the fall of the 2012-2013 school year. The S.T.O.P. officers/facilitators (at least one in each session dressed in full uniform) meet with 12 youth (who are indentified as “Future Young Leaders”) in the schools in seven weekly sessions.
Each session is one hour a day, one day a week. Upon completion of the program, each student signs a pledge sheet, receives a certificate of completion and a S.T.O.P. membership card (photo identification card).
“It’s about relationship building,” said Pierce, who added by going through the program, the youth learn that police are human beings too, with families.
During the aforementioned visit MCJ made to Fifty-third Street School to witness a S.T.O.P. session, three Milwaukee police S.T.O.P. facilitators: Sgt. William Singleton, officers Cornelius Taylor and Jasmine Moody, and Dax Odom, a community prosecutor in District 4 in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, talked with middle school students about police stops and police behavior.
“One of the things kids say to us is more time is needed than just one hour a day,” said Sgt. Singleton, who has been involved with the program going back to its pilot stage.
Speaking to the MCJ reporter before the beginning of the S.T.O.P. session at the school, Singleton revealed the positive outcomes from the initiative have been “off the chart.”
The police sergeant described how the attitudes of the students change during the course of the program, from apprehension and distrust to High-fives and hugs once they came to know the S.T.O.P. officers and gained knowledge of police procedures and why police do what they do.
“It’s a real game changer,” Singleton said. “The data proves their (youth) perception of police is a lot better after seven weeks in the program.”
One of the benefits of the program revealed Singleton, who with Odom helped create its curriculum, is its impact in the homes of the youth participants. “Twelve-to-17-year-olds are important voices in their homes–with their parents and siblings. The kids talk about the program with their families and encourage them to get involved.”
During the session, Singleton reviewed the previous week’s session, which covered what an ordinance and a “good faith stop” is. They also covered the Fourth Amendment “search and seizure” rights.
Odom talked to the students about their rights as citizens when in contact with police, such as the right to remain silent, what police can and can’t do if they stop a person and how that stop has to be reasonable.
Odom even engaged some of the students in scenarios illustrating what happens when youth engage with police, the good and the bad; and talked about what type of behavior a person should display when stopped and questioned by police.
Officer Taylor led a segment on how police should conduct themselves and asked the students if police can or can’t act any way they want. He also described the police code of conduct, which outlines specific ways police have to behave.
Officer Moody then reviewed with the students what they learned in the session and what happens when no communication takes place between police and youth.
Pierce said the S.T.O.P. program also affords youth the opportunity to become Police Explorers and later become involved in the police auxiliary program.
“One of the other goals of the S.T.O.P. program is to get kids interested in law enforcement as a career,” Pierce said, adding the Explorers and auxiliary programs are avenues the department uses to recruit potential police officers and increase diversity.