When Bud Whitehorn and Andre Crockett walk into one of the conference rooms in the Rochester Police Department's newly remodeled North Station, it's clear they've been here before.
And it's clear they have strong relationships--professional, personal--with the other two people in the room, RPD Chief Jim Franklin and RPD Community Services Captain Jeff Stilwell.
This is not some reactionary, for-show meeting hustled up between RPD and leaders of Rochester's Black community.
For Whitehorn (the Barbershop and Social Services-hired liasion between the RPD and Rochester's Black community) and Crockett (owner of Barbershop and Social Services in Rochester), this is another in a long-line of in-person talks that date back well before the murder of George Floyd.
The talks cover everything from education to upcoming community events. But when the foursome reflect on the most crucial aspects of what they do, one key concept keeps coming up: Listening.
Why do you point specifically to listening as one of those attributes that can help move this community forward?
Chief Franklin: Listening is absolutely essential when you're talking about moving a community forward, and especially for a police department. I mean, it's incumbent upon law enforcement right now to listen and be able to come to the table and have those brave conversations, have those uncomfortable conversations with the desired outcome of creating a stronger community on the other side.
Andre Crockett: I can tell you this, we have experienced more listening from the Rochester Police, and it has meant a lot to us. And we have listened more. I think these meetings have been very beneficial not only for the police department, but for us in the Black community. We can both learn from each other. I don't believe that we can properly move forward if we're going back and forth and worrying about what's negative. We're looking for solutions. And you find solutions by learning about each other. And you learn by listening.
Capt. Stilwell: We often just want to stick to our own reality, and everything that Andre might say I could get defensive and try to come up with an excuse why we have to do this or can't do that. But when we just sit down and agree to listen and hear each other out, we find a lot of commonalities. We do believe the Black community hasn't been heard. So we're doing that work. We're asking some of these people in places where we've struggled with communication: "What do you want to see from your police?"
Bud Whitehorn: The Rochester Police have been wonderful in giving us their ear, listening to the different problems and perspectives. We listen. They listen. We interact. We want to have more positive interaction so that we can all see each other's character, instead of going off of the stereotypes. We want to create a dialogue in our community for our police to be judged by their character and to not be seen as the villain. We're listening to each other. We're seeing each other's character.
Do you have real examples of this communication between the Black community and RPD making a difference?
Bud Whitehorn: We've been having listening sessions with the Rochester Police, and a lot of people come in and they've been able to get things off their chest. People have been able to speak to law enforcement here in Rochester at the highest level and understand that maybe the perception that they had wasn't what they thought it was. I have been getting positive feedback from my community. We just want to have a voice, and I feel like we have that.
Chief Franklin: The listening sessions have been great. We've been on The Barbershop Talks. We get to hear from people far more now. The last listening circle that we participated in, we had a young lady in there. And she talked very passionately about how her son used to always talk about wanting to be a cop and grew up wanting to be a cop. And she said, "He never mentions it anymore. He's not interested." I said, "Will you give me an opportunity to win your son back?" So now we're going to go meet with her son. We want to tell him, "Hey, come be the change, right? Come be part of this profession."
Capt. Stilwell: And the more recent events have shown us the urgency of building relationships sooner rather than later. The long-term vision here is that every street cop and every community leader in a neighborhood will be able to work together someday soon. We recently mediated a dispute between two neighbors that was over one neighbor's fear of a dog. It resulted in over 40 police calls in less than three months. First it was the dog, then loud music, then it ended up with one asking for a restraining order. And we said, "Let's try this. Let's do what we do every time we meet. Let's just look each other in the eye and talk it out." And we brought the two parties in, and they talked it out. They canceled the court date. There's no longer a restraining order. Now, we need every cop to be able to do that in every neighborhood. It was just listening to each other.
Chief Franklin: Traditional law enforcement would have meant a response, warning, citation, then to the criminal justice system, get the restraining order, probably evict the people. Instead, we all mediated, right, to improve everybody's quality of life within that neighborhood.
Those are great examples. OK. What is one thing we can do to help move things forward?
Chief Franklin: I think it comes down to this: When you take the time to sit down and talk to somebody and listen to somebody, I think you find that you've got more in common with them than you do have different. And then you're able to walk away from those conversations with a better understanding of everybody walking through this life with a different perspective. Right? And we've got to understand that. That's a source of strength.
Bud Whitehorn: We've got to make ourselves comfortable to have an uncomfortable conversation. We've got to continue to strive to peel back these layers of distrust, fear, and misunderstanding. We have this chance, right now, to be proactive instead of reactive. Everyone in this room sees hope in that. Everyone in this room is acting on that.
Capt. Stilwell: We've got to get out there and do the work. There's definitely a time to march and protest and do all those things. But then you've got to come back and do the real hard work. And that's what we're trying to do. Sit in those rooms and feel the pain in people. Listen to them.
Andre Crockett: It all goes back to those meaningful relationships. You introduce me to some of your friends. I introduce you to some of my friends. Pretty soon we're all friends. I mean, it sounds simple. right? Maybe it is.