The officers came in their T-shirts and jeans, “since when we came in our uniforms,” said the Senior Lead Officer, Larry Martinez, “some of the kids started to cry.” No one was crying that day, though, as about 20 former “youthful offenders” sat face to face with four of L.A.’s finest and told them what they thought of them.
“Mean,” said the first girl. “Unfair,” said a boy that Martinez was soon calling “Spikey” because of his hair. Soon, though, everyone was laughing. The role-reversal part of the Speak Up! program was in progress. Another officer, Gloria Caloca, was playing a kid stopped for running a stop sign, and one of the girls played the cop, trying to get her to produce her license.
It wasn’t easy. Officer Caloca knew all the tricks. “Why’d you stop me? Because I’m a minority?” This stopped the student, an intellectual young woman who first got addicted to prescription meds. But that’s history with her; now she’s finishing her high school degree, applying to colleges with programs in music engineering—and trying to get Officer Caloca to produce her driver’s license, so far without much luck.
That’s when Officer Martinez stepped in. He may look like a civilian in his T-shirt, but he plays a cop better than any actor. “I’m mad by now,” he tells the students. “Scared, too. Did you ever think that cops got scared?”
No, they didn’t.
“Well, think about it. It’s dark most of the time, and let’s say there’s an apartment complex behind us, and you don’t know who’s coming out of there with a gun. Plus there’s a guy in the backseat”− he gestures to one of the students − “and he’s starting to reach down” − the student reaches down − “and you don’t know what he’s got down there on the floor, see?”
The students saw. Some of them were already asking what it takes to get into the Los Angeles Police Academy. All of them were seeing that “cops are human, just like us,” as one of them wrote afterwards, which is precisely the point of the Speak Up! program.
Developed locally in 2009 from the “West Side Story Project,” a gang-prevention initiative that started in Seattle, this 2-hour intervention workshop helps law enforcement and at-risk youth better understand each other’s attitudes and behavior. Students and officers use ice-breaker and role-reversal exercises to practice finding peaceful resolutions to conflict, learn ways to prevent escalation of hostility and violence, and most importantly– to increase mutual respect.
Officer Sanchez explained, “If I stop you and you react with anger, then resistance meets resistance” − he pushed his two fists together − “and it won’t end well for you.” It wouldn’t end well for him either, he pointed out, if he let his own anger get to him. “Then the guy in the backseat gets it on his cell phone, and I’ve got a problem. See?”
More nods, and then came a scene with Officer Caloca again, but this time the kids were ready. When she started mouthing off to the kid-cops, one of them told her it would be better for her if she “came at them respectfully.” And that’s when the officers started smiling.