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Program Aims to Improve Law Enforcement and Community Relations

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With community and police relations going from a simmer to a boil in many cities around the country, a San Diego philanthropist has created a program that brings together three universities, law enforcement agencies and the public for focus groups followed by attendance at sporting events.

San Diego State University, the University of San Diego and Ohio State University have implemented the Game Changer program by providing meeting space and game access. Other partners are the San Diego district attorney’s office, the Urban League of San Diego County, Alliance Healthcare Foundation and the San Diego Gulls.

Sean Sheppard (right) receiving a donation from San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore.

The program was initiated in December 2016 by Sean Sheppard, a philanthropist from San Diego who conceived the program after seeing “unnecessary loss of life between law enforcement and people of color.”

Sheppard said he “didn’t see anybody offer any solutions to how we can minimize those type of violent instances in various communities across the country,” so he decided to create a platform that does just that. He wanted to have the meetings at sports games, he said, because “sports brings people together” from all walks of life.

“I knew based on my background in collegiate athletics, as an athlete and as a coach, that a lot of the unrest in the community between law enforcement, particularly White male officers within law enforcement and people of color, is really due to a lack of exposure, a lack of understanding, a lack of comfort, a lack of familiarity with one another,” said Sheppard.

Sheppard, a Brooklyn native, earned his bachelor’s degree at Georgetown University and a master’s degree in physical education with an emphasis on sports psychology at San Diego State.  He formerly was director of strength and conditioning for Olympic sports at Ohio State University.

The ultimate goal of Game Changer is to change people’s perceptions, resulting in changed behaviors, in the hopes of creating more peaceful outcomes between law enforcement and the public, said Sheppard.

Each session takes place three hours before the start of a collegiate or professional game with no more than 20 people in the session, 15 of whom are diverse members of the public. This three-to-one ratio of the community to law enforcement and government officials has been very beneficial in determining what concerned the community, something that wasn’t visible when the program first began, Sheppard said.

“We first started out with a one-to-one ratio and that didn’t work so well,” he said. “When you have [fewer] cops or members of law enforcement, you’ll get input from more people.”

A Game Changer focus group in action.

The moderated focus groups discuss topics such as use of police use of force and mental health, and participants come up with solutions to each issue. Before each focus group, Game Changer hands out pre-perception surveys to each individual to measure their thoughts regarding law enforcement and community relations. Afterward, they all go to the game together.

“We bring our Smart Pads and a hot spot to the game, and everyone completes their post-perception survey at the game” Sheppard said, adding that it’s important that people of different races, genders, sexualities and job affiliations get to know one another and spend time with those whom they otherwise “wouldn’t spend face time with.”

Michael Blevins, a lieutenant with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, heard about Game Changer through his previous captain, who he filled in for at some of the first focus groups. He attends the sessions once every three to four months.

“I think it’s an excellent program,” Blevins said. “They’re trying to get both sides to understand what each side wants and what each side is going through and trying to give the community a little bit better understanding of what law enforcement officers go through, and also have law enforcement officers better understand community viewpoints.”

Marisol Natividad, a frequent Game Changer community member participant, uses her background of working as a social justice activist to help express her thoughts on each of the focus group topics.

“I believe Game Changer is effectively working on bridging law enforcement with different entities of community members,” Natividad said. “It uses a controlled, facilitated, intimate setting to foster an environment where participants can be honest, which in fact fosters empathy, understanding and compassion across participants and the groups they represent.”

Due to her busy work and family schedule, Natividad participates in Game Changer once every couple of months, but plans to attend more once her load lightens, “as this is probably one of the most invigorating and satisfying community events that personally brings me a sense of collaboration and hope,” she said.

The San Diego State University Institute of Public Health recently published an analysis in June 2018 showcasing survey data collected from each session between April 2017 and February 2018. The data includes survey responses from 300 community members and 146 members of law enforcement.

The analysis compared answers and perceptions of law enforcement and the public before and after the focus groups.

In a question that asked the number-one problem between law enforcement and many communities they serve, law-enforcement ranked communication first, followed by fair treatment/lack of integrity and then bias. Community members ranked fair treatment and lack of police integrity first, followed by communication and then bias.

The analysis also concluded that there were changes in perception and behaviors among community members and law enforcement. One finding was that after the focus groups, the difference in positive views of law enforcement between people in different socioeconomic neighborhoods narrowed.

“General public community members living in higher crime areas changed to very positive perceptions, while general public community members, (the most pronounced demographic groups: African American, 14-25 years old, high school or some college/associate degree holder as highest completed education) living in lower crime areas lowered their favorable view of law enforcement, which may have been mediated after hearing the experiences of other people,” the analysis stated.

The conversations within each focus group discussion unfold organically, so there’s no way of predicting what topics each session will lead to, Sheppard said. The most common discussion topics typically involve traffic stops, profiling, accountability and bias, he said.

After each focus group is completed and the surveys have been collected, the program board of directors compiles the “action items” or solutions devised by the groups and share them with law enforcement leadership and elected officials at the San Diego City Council. Then, it’s up to the officials to determine whether they wish to implement the action items.

Sheppard said he hopes Game Changer will someday end up a “part of popular culture around the country.”

“Game Changer isn’t just about law enforcement and the general public coming together, it’s about the law enforcement and the general public being in the same space,” he said.

“Our events are designed for a great deal of diversity to be in the room, whether it’s ethnic diversity, racial diversity, cultural, socioeconomic, political, sexual orientation … If we don’t create these environments for people to spend face time with one another and the only exposure they’re getting of one another is social media and what the media portrays, that leads to the problems that we have in our society amongst one another.”

Monica Levitan can be reached at mlevitan@diverseeducation.com.

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