About a hundred local student leaders gathered in a room packed with police officers who wanted to show them the human side of law enforcement.
The Tulsa Police Department collaborated with Tulsa Public Schools to host the 10th annual Mayor's Police and Community Coalition Youth Forum on Friday. The students, who came from high schools throughout the city, listened to presentations ranging from how to avoid gang violence and what to do during a traffic stop.
But more importantly, TPS Chief of Police Matthias Wicks said the teens had the opportunity to sit down with officers and ask them whatever they wanted.
The tougher the question, the better.
“I know as young people, they might have questions they're too afraid to ask for fear of being judged,” Wicks said. “The truth is, ask that question because that answer might really help somebody.”
One of the primary goals of the forum is to build relationships and trust between police and students that result in safer interactions
and a shared understanding of one another.
During his 26 years in law enforcement, Wicks said he has seen the challenges that happen when youths lack trust and respect for police. That's why he believes it's important for officers to engage with students and tear down the barrier between them.
“Not only are police officers human beings, but we're all human beings,” he said. “It's not us against them or them against us. We want to make sure that this program here allows young people to understand we need them. They're very intelligent, incredibly passionate, and as adults, we have a responsibility to listen.”
Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan said he's a firm believer that informal personal relationships established in events like the youth forum are far more lasting than what can be accomplished at a town hall or formal education setting.
Not only do the teenagers benefit by asking questions, but also the officers get to learn about the concerns and issues facing high-schoolers.
There are many reasons why students mistrust officers, Jordan said. Some learn it from their parents who had bad experiences with police. Others grow up in neighborhoods that have long had tense relationships with law enforcement.
“A lot of it's amazingly easy to overcome once they get in a personal relationship with somebody, talk to them and see them as human beings,” he said. “The kids here today, they're going to be leading our community some day. This is a tremendous opportunity for us to start mending fences and making some inroads in building trust.”
The Rev. Sharyn Cosby, pastor of In the Spirit Christian Church, talked to the students about efforts by law enforcement to eliminate racial profiling and disparity affecting youths.
Cosby from the Oklahoma Bureau of Juvenile Affairs from a few years ago showing that for every one white child arrested, there were seven black children arrested. The most current data shows that number has decreased from seven to about four.
Although the numbers still are disproportionate, Cosby said she's grateful they aren't what they used to be. She credited Mayor G.T. Bynum and Jordan for striving to make children feel safer.
A large contribution was the implementation of TPD training courses that teach cadets how to effectively interact with youths.
“I am very proud of my police officers,” Cosby said. “They have made some great strides in making these numbers come down. Are we there yet? No. But we have come a long way, and I'm excited about that.”
Booker T. Washington High School students Michael McHenry (right) and Tony Smith (center) listen to a presentation while seated near Tulsa Police Officer Cindy Murphy (left) during the MPACC Youth Forum on Friday.