A new program that works to unite students, officers, and all community members is not only defusing potentially tense situations but could be a model that helps towns all across America struggling with the misunderstanding of authority figures. When the school year began, law enforcement leaders in Alfred decided to take a proactive approach by implementing this program, called Shared Space.
“I recently returned from the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference where there was no hotter topic than how to build better dialogues, understanding, and cooperation,” stated Matt Heller, chief of State University Police at Alfred State. “I’m so proud that I could share Alfred’s success story with colleagues, by explaining how Shared Space can bring the law enforcement community together with the African American community and any other interested students. Meeting in a relaxed atmosphere, we discuss current issues and better comprehend each other’s perspectives.”
To begin the dialogue, Heller, Alfred Village Chief of Police Paul Griffith, and Alfred University’s Public Safety Chief John Dougherty participated in a series of lunches held on both the Alfred State and Alfred University campuses. Shared Space stands for: Students and Police Advocating for Community Engagement. The chiefs invited no-holds-barred conversation to encourage authentic and productive communication.
“I think these meetings proved to be very beneficial,” stated Griffith. “I believe education and conversation is a big part of addressing the relationship between the African American community and local police. By showing that all of us can show each other respect and trust, hopefully we have a better understanding of how to work together in shared space and our shared community of Alfred.”
This series of discussions has included pizza lunches, cookie drop-offs, and coffee hours to encourage positive contact with officers. Students noticed how local officers are receptive to their questions and eager to avoid unneeded confrontations.
One participating student noted that while national media may publicize wrongdoing by officers in different towns, “It’s also the community itself that may go about reacting the wrong way,” concluded Kendell Webb, an applications software development major from New York City. “I want to become one of the students who help bridge the gap of communication between the community and the police.”
State University Police, Alfred Police, and Alfred University’s Public Safety Department also hosted a family barbecue dinner to further bond the law enforcement community with students who now welcome this interaction.
“At the barbecue there were no badges, no vests, and no guns and officers brought their family members as well,” Dougherty stated. “The idea is to show our students that police officers first and foremost are people with families, outside interests, and that we are invested to make the community safe for everyone. We are regular community members too, who happened to choose a career to advance the causes of safety and security.”
These Shared Space gatherings can cover any topic and provide an opportunity to discuss situations before they even occur. By talking about how officers need to handle crowd control, altercations, and protecting the public safety, students have the opportunity to ask questions and more fully understand a different perspective from their own.
“That sort of discussion isn't possible when it may be late at night and we are tasked with clearing the street for example,” Heller said. “The idea is to have allies in the crowd who understand why law enforcement officers are doing what it is we are doing. And if they see other individuals acting inappropriately, fellow students can step in and educate their friends to better resolve the situation.”