In a conference room in Newark, police officers and community members sat in a semicircle talking about their trauma, personal and collective. They talked about decades of distrust, and they talked about moving on.
“I don’t like cops,” said Fakheria Bradley, who spent years in New Jersey’s notorious women’s prison, Edna Mahan, where 15 officers and staff were recently charged with assaulting prisoners. “I don’t like them in my face because of the trauma that I experienced in prison, the trauma I experienced walking the streets of Newark."
Bradley’s admission came at the start of the two-day-long Trauma To Trust, a program run by a Brooklyn-based nonprofit, Equal Justice USA. It brings together Newark community members — activists from anti-violence groups, youth volunteers, social workers — with city police officers. The discussions are entirely centered on how trauma affects their everyday interactions.
Next to Bradley sat Newark Police Officer Yvie Johnson, who said even though she had a similar upbringing as Bradley did, once she became a police officer, “the public doesn’t see you the same.”
“They see you as a badge and a gun,” Johnson said. “They see you as blue.”
“A pig,” Bradley said.
“A pig,” Johnson affirmed. “We come into this to make a change, and then we start to be targeted.”
In Newark, the relationship between police and community members is deeply damaged. Since 2016, Newark Police have been watched over by a federal monitor after an investigation found police officers used excessive force, stole property, and disproportionately stopped and arrested Black people. Trauma To Trust training isn’t mandated by the federal monitor, but the city wants all officers to go through it. More than 300 have so far, about a third of the department--as a “vehicle for building trust with the community,” according to Newark Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara.
The program seeks to help officers and those they police communicate about the various forms of violence they’ve both experienced. In an era of viral videos of police killings and political discord over “defund the police” chants, cities across the country are experimenting with such mediated reconciliation conversations.
Led by an Equal Justice USA facilitator, Daniel Ortiz, the conversations included startling admissions and deep dives into systemic racism, implicit bias, intergenerational trauma, and mass incarceration. Through it all, he looked for commonalities — asking participants their favorite foods, and favorite vacation spots. “There are not many times that we can get community and officers in the same space, act like one, act like just regular people,” Ortiz told the group. “The only thing that separates us is the uniform.”
Most everyone here spoke a common language — they remembered the same killings, they went to the same schools. When participants were asked to step forward if they’ve ever lost someone to gun violence, almost everyone took a step. Officers and community members alike spoke of absent fathers, food insecurity, and mothers who lived on the streets.
But they disagreed about whether police officers could really ever alter, in any meaningful way, a history of aggressive policing. Jahmil Reed, a veteran volunteer with the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, spoke to the younger officers in the room: “You guys are fresh, and you’re pure … But as time goes by, and you get enough of those bosses who tell you don’t do what’s right … shit begin to change.”