2018-09-12 / Voice at the Shore

Praying with our feet: AC community police walks promote trust, prevent violence

COMMUNITY CORNER
By DOUG STANGER,
executive vice-chairman for Anti-Defamation League’s Philadelphia Region


ADL’s Doug Stanger, on left, is pictured with Atlantic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, Police Chief Henry White, and Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner. All are regulars on the weekly community police walks in Atlantic City, with the exception of Grewal, who said the walk should become a model for other cities in New Jersey to follow. ADL’s Doug Stanger, on left, is pictured with Atlantic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, Police Chief Henry White, and Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner. All are regulars on the weekly community police walks in Atlantic City, with the exception of Grewal, who said the walk should become a model for other cities in New Jersey to follow. Just about every week this summer and last, I’ve spent one night a week walking through neighborhoods of Atlantic City that are socio-economically depressed.

The walks began as an initiative of the Atlantic County Coalition for a Safe Community (ACCSC). Atlantic City Police Chief Henry White and many of his officers, City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner, and ACCSC Board Chair Perry Mays are usually present, as are many kids and parents from the neighborhoods we walk through. Many members of the greater Atlantic County area also walk along with us, as a show of solidarity and to build positive community relationships.

Every now and then, officials from out of the area will come take part in the walk. One such official was the Attorney General for the State of New Jersey, Gurbir Grewal. He was exceptionally impressed with what we were doing and said he wanted to make it a model for the rest of the state.

Shirat Hayam Cantor Harvey Wolbransky, who chairs Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, also walks with us. Harvey and I walk for the same reasons. The Anti- Defamation League, for which I am the Philadelphia-region vice-chair, and the JCRC both have an interest in the health and welfare of the community at large. Both of us see a tremendous benefit in positive social action.

We, like all the other people we walk with, want to do what we can to assist local police and community leaders in creating a positive relationship between police, community and residents in these depressed areas. This creates a better life for all and decreases the likelihood of tensions rising in a way that could lead to the kind of additional violence and suffering that has occurred in places like Fergusson, Baltimore, and many other cities.

The walk is specifically designed to create those positive relationships between area residents and police and to generally unite the community. We all give out candy and fruit to kids we pass who live in the area. Pleasant conversations occur with the residents. They appear genuinely appreciative of the efforts and presence.

The walk always begins with a prayer circle, where we all hold hands and a clergy member or community member will set a spiritual intention for our gathering. Sometimes a community organization is invited to come, such as Volunteers for America, and community members are told a little bit about the group. (Volunteers for America is a faith-based nonprofit that provides affordable housing and other assistance services to low-income people throughout the United States.) Pamphlets are handed out to inform the residents of various services available locally.

Kids from the community also take part in this opening prayer circle. At a recent walk, where the kids were encouraged to join hands, we overheard one child telling his friend who wasn’t taking his place in the circle right away: “Better get in the circle or else the po-po are going to get you!”

Some of us heard this and we couldn’t ignore it. We were there so that kids wouldn’t feel that way about the police! So this became a teachable moment. One of the officers immediately stepped in to say that wasn’t going to happen, that he and other officers were walking to get to know the kids and to help them, not to keep them in line.

Why would kids have this reaction to police? Too often, kids see police officers coming down their street in these neighborhoods, knocking on someone’s door, looking for someone, and it’s not exactly a friendly visit. The walks are designed to give community members another way to see and get to know police officers, as a way to build those positive relationships.

Prosecutor Tyner, a regular participant in these community police walks, has said efforts like this to create positive relationships between police and community members help build trust and have had a tremendous impact. This trust is essential for avoiding the kind of violence that has broken out in other cities. No shooting or other incidents in Atlantic City this summer have resulted in broader violence breaking out.

Atlantic City leaders have also mentioned a few other factors that have reduced crime and violence locally. One of these is the recent installation of surveillance systems in neighborhoods at higher risk for crime. Because of these, parents are now more comfortable letting their children play outside, and I’m told that more kids are playing outside than ever before. The new casinos, which have brought new jobs to Atlantic City, also seem to be helping to reduce crime.

This is the second year that I have participated in these walks. The walks are ending for this year, but I encourage the Jewish community to join Harvey and I on these walks next year.

Why should you walk?

Most Jewish community members are insulated from the reality of the poor economic conditions experienced by many Atlantic City residents. I believe that seeing this reality can serve as a call to action. It shows us where tikkum olam is urgently needed, hopefully compelling us to confront poverty and unemployment and come up with solutions.

Another reason to take part in the walks is that AC community residents truly appreciate seeing people outside of the community care about them, and police officers appreciate the show of solidarity.

The community police walk is one of several initiatives created by the Atlantic County Coalition for a Safe Community, which was started in 2010 by community leaders, activists and clergy determined to take action to combat crime and violence. For more information on the coalition, go to scsatlantic.org. 

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