“Can I play with your handcuffs?”
“Have you ever killed somebody?”
“Whenever you get Tased, does it hurt?”
“How much do you get paid?”
Those are the questions that middle school students asked police officers Thursday morning during a special event meant to promote trust between the two groups.
The gathering is part of a new initiative called Community Trust Champions, started by a group of Tulsa residents who saw a need to bring down the barrier between the greater community and those in law enforcement.
About 25 students from McLain Seventh Grade Academy and Monroe Demonstration Academy participated in Thursday’s event, and another 50 students are expected to participate in an event on Friday.
Eight Tulsa Police Department officers attended Thursday, and a different eight officers will participate Friday. The hope is to hold additional sessions in the spring.
The initiative started in May, when 20 middle-schoolers participated in a pilot for the program.
The structure for the event includes an hour-long open discussion between officers and students, followed by a day filled with games and ropes-course activities at the HelmZar Challenge Course.
TPD Detective J.B. Bennett participated in the pilot program and attended again on Thursday.
“The idea is to build trust … and confidence,” he said.
Bennett said the event is an opportunity for kids to see officers out of uniform — they changed after the morning question-and-answer session — and in a more vulnerable position.
He said for many kids who live in areas “where bad things happen,” their only interaction with police is during “stressful times,” or when police come to arrest a parent or friend or loved one.
“That makes it difficult to make inroads,” he said.
Jim Goodwin, publisher of the Oklahoma Eagle, was one of those community members who worked to create the Community Trust Champions initiative. He said it started a few days after the shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, when several Tulsans gathered in the house of a friend to talk about how to change things.
“It (Ferguson) created in us a sense of urgency that something had to be done to bridge the ever-growing gap between police and citizens,” he said.
Goodwin said the event is about showing kids that police officers are people, that they have senses of humor. This helps break down barriers, he said.
For some of the kids attending the event, the day was simply a way to do something fun rather than stay at home during fall break.
But organizers said they would leave with more to think about.
In answer to the questions the children asked, officers addressed many issues that create friction between police and the public.
It turns out, none of the eight officers in the room had ever shot anyone during their careers, which for some was more than 20 years.
“If you look at police officers, more often than not, they’re trying to save people,” Bennett told the students.
Bennett also showed the students a video of himself getting tased during a training exercise. Officers know how it feels, he said.
When the issue of pay came up, Cpl. Wyett Poth reminded students that police often step up in times of danger to protect others.
“How much is that really worth to you?” he asked a completely silent room. “Is there an amount of money that you could be paid to come out and say, ‘I’m going to get shot for you. I don’t know you, I’ve never met you in my life, but if I see someone trying to hurt you, I’m gonna take the chance of me getting hurt instead of you.’ Is there an amount of money that you could put on that?”
“No,” the students responded.
Seventh-grader Kiyanni Davis, from McLain, said she enjoyed the question-and-answer session with the officers.
“It was cool,” she said.
Davis said she was a little nervous when the officers came in, “because there was a lot of them.”
But she felt that they honestly and completely answered all the questions the students asked.
Xavier Williams, a seventh-grader at Monroe, came to experience the ropes course because he has never done it before, but he appreciated that the officers were also at the event.
“They didn’t have to come, he said. “They took that out of their time.”
Walker Hanson, of 3CG Records, was also part of the grassroots effort to start the initiative. Hanson said as the need to do something became apparent, the group started reaching out to different sectors of the community for ideas. Eventually, Community Trust Champions was formed.
Hanson said it’s a simple yet proactive attempt to change things.
“It doesn’t solve anything, but it starts dialogue.”