As a preventive measure to quell urban violence and following a wave of reports on police-involved shootings, some being questionable, throughout the nation, state Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D-8) hosted what was supposed to be an open discussion last Saturday morning at Delaware County Technical Schools (DCTS) in Folcroft between local youth and law enforcement to explore ways of bridging a burgeoning gap.
But less than two dozen people showed up. The conference was scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. but was declared over by about 11:30 a.m. Nevertheless the conversation continued.
“We started a year ago after reports of people of color being shot nationally, knowing full well that the consequences of those events could happen here,” Williams told The Spirit. “And we’re prepared to prevent that from happening.”
Delaware County resident Christen Davis said, “It goes back to the parents, so if the parents don’t trust the police, they’re going to teach their children to not trust the police, so it all goes back to mom and dad…so when you talk about having these meetings for the youth, whose parents don’t trust the police, of course they’re not going to come…”
The panel of local enforcement officials, mostly from the Eighth Senatorial District, included Darby Township Police Chief Regina Price, Darby Borough Police Chief Robert Smythe, and Yeadon’s interim-Police Chief Sgt. Tom Reynolds. Darby Borough Mayor Helen Thomas also attended.
“The borough and residents wanted to get together to discuss aspects in the county to combat racism or anger against police at that time,” Thomas said, adding that a previous meeting in Darby Borough was insufficient for residents to discuss their issues.
With many leaders from the senatorial district that also covers a large part of Philadelphia, present, the other side of the discussion, the youth, was not present. The average age of attendees appeared to hover around 30 years-old and attendance of young people was “woefully scarce,” as Williams described, to continue on with the original purpose.
Law enforcement officials from Folcroft and Collingdale, also in the senator’s district, were absent as well. In Collingdale, sources familiar with criminal justice who wish to remain unidentified revealed that many Black Collingdale residents receive a disproportionate number of disorderly conduct citations.
A Black Collingdale resident who also wished to remain anonymous said, “Collingdale police are rude and racist.”
When a reporter asked Williams about the Collingdale Police Department’s alleged behavior, the senator said, “If that’s the case, then [Collingdale police] should be here.”
Despite the impromptu shift, Williams said he felt “positive” about the discussion.
“Going through life, there are many moments when you may have to adjust,” the senator said. “This turned out to be very productive from the standpoint that many people contributed ideas about how we’re going to generate more young people being here and more interactive in a natural way, so if that generation showed up in significant numbers today, they may not have felt comfortable.”
Adult members of the community, many of whom were parents, along with Williams and law enforcement discussed methods to engage young people to react more positively to law enforcement.
The group narrowed their targets to high schoolers and middle schoolers, two groups that Price said are “more likely” to be put through the criminal justice system.
Price recalled programs like DARE and GREAT, and suggested reviving them tailored to today’s youth.
Reynolds and Smythe recommended police departments hosting an assembly during the school year.
Smythe said Darby Borough police already have a presence in Darby Middle School, which resulted in a decrease of disruptive behaviors in the lunchrooms and many of the students are very receptive to the officers present.
The Darby Borough police chief also mentioned his son, a teacher at the school, who has an unconventional teaching method to captivate children.
“He’s a clown; he comes to school dressed as Superman. I don’t know how the school lets him get away with it, but he does it and the kids love it,” Smythe said. “…but maybe that’s what we need to do, be more relatable. We’re not going to get to them in this environment; we need to go to them.”
“…That’s the bond that we need to get,” Thomas said. “We need to go into our schools.”
Collingdale resident Darryl Booker suggested law enforcement reach out to parent-teacher organizations, but Rockelle Irons, also a Collindale resident and candidate for the Southeast Delco School Board, said the hardest challenge is getting parents to attend.
“One of the hardest things we face is how do we get parents to come out,” Irons said, adding that parental apathy prevails despite the free incentive to lure them to attend.
Williams’ staffer Rudy Jackson, III, who facilitated the meeting, said, “This is the same group of people I saw at the last meeting. The assemblies are correct and I find that to be effective, but we have to have conversation to make the kids understand…if the cops who do 12-hour shifts and see you on the corner three times of the day on the same corner, you need to reevaluate…”
Jackson, whose brother is a police officer, also urged the civilian population to gain a level of empathy for police officers.
“I get complaints at my office about cops pulling guns on people, but we don’t know what they’re responding to…,” Jackson said.