The Art of Listening in the Age of BLM

    by Dylan Norman, Athena’s Student 

    Please note – This post was written by a student. The views expressed are his own. He saw hurt around him and chose to bring another side to the discussion. Reading carefully, you will see that although he was inspired by a course, his article was not created for a class. His point in this article is to show how important it is to listen to both sides and include other perspectives in the discussion. Be sure to remember the essence of this article when attempting to leave a comment.

    I took a psychology course through Athena’s, and my love of Psychology is one of the reasons I wrote this article.

    I’m not a protestor. I’ve never even found great use in the art of protesting. Yet this year something changed, and everyone around me simultaneously became protestors, outside my house on the streets and inside my house, across social media. The cries of Black Lives Matter became more powerful as each new voice joined in and black people were killed across the country. I can recognize injustice when I see it, and soon images and stories of injustice flooded my life. One particular case, that of Ahmaud Arbery, was so chilling to me I was possessed to do a sketch of Mr. Arbery that, despite my lack of drawing prowess, I hoped could honor him in some way.

    Within this mountain of justified activism and anger, there I was: a white, confused, and frustrated kid living in the small Californian town of Redwood City. I was assaulted on all sides by ideals, messages, and rage that had no unifying voice or plan. In other words, I was directionless, in some ways like the movement itself. So, what did I do?

    I went to the police.

    The police have gone from a glorified, justice-providing organization that we see in cop shows to a persona of the evil doers, racists preying on those below them. This change in the way the police are perceived made me wonder what they thought of all this, and what they thought (if anything) they had to change. I had heard the protestors, I had heard the politicians, but I had never heard from the villains of 2020.

    Please don’t misunderstand. You may find the current state of the police to be at best an imperfect system, and at worst racked with racism and responsible for unwarranted deaths. Yet no matter where your beliefs lie, I still believe we should value discourse. Even if you don’t like the police, the police still have a valuable perspective on what can be improved. After all, how can an organization be improved if you don’t want to hear what that organization’s mindset is, or even if that organization has one unified mindset?

    So, seeking out the Police perspective, I managed to organize an interview with the Redwood City Chief of Police Dan Mulholland. We had a long conversation, and though I wish I could share it all, I will have to summarize what I feel are the most interesting parts. First of all, I asked Chief Mulholland what he believed the role of Police was?

    He believed that the Police’s role is to enforce laws while operating within certain parameters, to support communities, and to serve the state. In terms of community trust, Mulholland said it best: “If we don’t do that in a professional way, if we don’t do that in an appropriate way, if we don’t do that in an equal way, we do so at our own peril.” Chief Mulholland admits that many of the challenges police face are in many ways, as he said, “brought about by ourselves.” As Chief Mulholland puts it, it’s “okay to question what we do.”

    One thing that bothered me was the lack of national standards. While Chief Mulholland explained the long list of training and vetting processes that go into being a police officer in Redwood City, as well as in California, there is a lack of this nationwide. Some people aren’t given enough training to be successful police officers, while others simply shouldn’t be police officers and due to poor vetting practices were allowed onto the force. Chief Mulholland seemed to suggest that some stations, like the one in Redwood City, are being smeared due to other station’s organizational culture, lack of training, recruiting protocol and vetting process. Chief Mulholland believes that Police, despite the anger against them, are for the most part living up to their role.

    When asked about reforms, Chief Mulholland believes that police should listen to their community to learn what they can do to reform policies and to continually assess their stations. Nevertheless, there are some things Chief Mulholland believes the police can work on before even going to the community, such as de-escalation training. Chief Mulholland said that his officers are now focusing on slowing down dangerous situations in order to create time and response space. Sometimes it’s not always possible if the other person won’t work with police to slow down the encounter. The process of de-escalation is a tactic that is constantly improved upon, and Chief Mulholland suggested that his station continues to seek out ways to make de-escalation more effective.

    Chief Mulholland also notes that personality comes into play in stressful and dangerous encounters. Perhaps the officer has an animated personality, they’re loud, or they’re alarmed easily, but regardless it can actually have the unintended effect of escalating a dangerous situation. The police are now taught in training what traits are valuable for de-escalation. A calm personality in particular has the best chance of achieving the desired results. It should be noted that while Chief Mulholland talked about the effectiveness of de-escalation, he also pointed out that it doesn’t always work, nor is it always applied. For example, it’s becoming acceptable for police to simply leave a situation if their presence is escalating it and there is no immediate danger to civilians. Chief Mulholland mentioned the police are looking towards other options and resources to improve their de-escalation tactics, and hopefully this will lead to a more peaceful way of approaching dangerous situations.

    Student hands coming together to show support to illustrate the article at Athena's Advanced Academy.

    He also focused on the people within his police station being representative of the community they serve, saying that 82% to 86% of the people he has promoted to the rank of sergeant were either women, POC, LGBTQ, or a combination of those three. He stressed good leadership, paired with training, fair policy, and consequences for not meeting standards are all important in fostering an environment for Police to do their jobs justly.

    The final thing that was mentioned was the implementation of body cameras. The Redwood City Police Department have been working on a system for body cameras, and they’ve already achieved written policy and attained federal funding. Apparently, even the Federal Department of Justice looked at the program and thought they had a model policy. The only thing that appears to be left is to actually implement the program. Once the program is implemented, Chief Mulholland hopes that it will win back the community’s trust in the police. When matters are disputed, there will be video evidence available. While Chief Mulholland focused on how civilians may act differently on camera, I also hope that body cameras will serve as a way to ensure that both police and civilians are behaving fairly and ethically.

    My discussion with Chief Mulholland proved more interesting than I had ever expected. He had far more to share than I had expected, but I suppose I should have set my expectations higher to begin with. Chief Mulholland has a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, who has risen through the ranks to eventually become the Police Chief of an area with about 88,000 residents. Like many, he has a story and viewpoint worth sharing, but his seems forgotten. It’s extremely important to hear from POC voices, and listen to the stories they share. But at the same time, it’s also important to hear from everyone, so you can build a more complete understanding of any situation.

    It’s difficult to try to find a voice or a story to share when you’re buried under thousands of others, all telling you what to or what not to believe. I’m a white kid. I haven’t dealt with racism, prejudice, or discrimination directly. But what I can do is find something to say, regardless of what I’ve experienced. Every voice is worth listening to whether you agree with it or not. I hope my fellow teenagers can learn the same thing I’ve learned during this long blur of a year: to find a voice, you have to listen first. We’re young, and at this point, it’s almost impossible for us to have a grasp on complex social issues like race in America. The more I learn about anything, the more I realize that I know less and less. There are no easy solutions and there are no simple truths because there is no easy problem. I often hear my friends sharing strong opinions that offer a simplified view. The unfortunate truth is that no one may ever fully understand an issue as complex as police reform, discrimination, and social justice, but at the very least we can try. So where do we start?

    For me, the first step in understanding was to listen.

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