Youth-Police Dialogues: A chat with OJEN
Guest author Michelle Thompson joins us today to share an interview she conducted about an innovative project that brings police and marginalized youth together.
As sole-purpose PLEI (public legal education and information) organizations, we are constantly wrestling with the question of what PLEI can and can’t do. We hear a lot of questions from community workers about how we can use PLEI to empower clients and support movements for social change. For over 10 years, the Ontario Justice Education Network (OJEN) has been carefully refining how we work with vulnerable youth around criminal law and policing issues. I sat down with Mara Clarke, OJEN’s Director of Outreach (MC), and Executive Director Jessica Reekie (JR), to discuss this process.
This interview was edited for flow.
MT: Thank you for being here. OJEN’s main policing-issues program right now is our Youth-Police Dialogues (YPD). What exactly is a YPD?
MC: The original request for a YPD came from a youth group at Scarlettwood Court that was experiencing issues with their local police force in 2007. We found that in other programs, youth wanted to problem-share, to talk about what they were experiencing, but they didn’t have the communication skills to talk about it in a way that was digestible to the audience, which was made up of lawyers or police officers. It would turn into swearing, shouting, crying, and stomping out. So their message wasn’t being heard.
With YPDs we still start with problem-sharing, but we move to problem-solving. We built a program where youth work on their communication skills, learning how to advocate for themselves and share their ideas. But they are also in a space with officers, in close proximity, sometimes learning something together, having some down time where real conversations can happen, and the youth and police both get to question some of the myths they have about the other side. Usually youth and police aren’t in community like that but for the times when they’re being policed or doing police work. So this is an opportunity to enter community without that baggage.
MT: So what law do you cover? What’s the core PLEI content?
JR: In YPDs we spend a lot of time in advance talking to the community partners to find out what the local issues are. In Toronto, that might be your rights on community housing property. In Ottawa, it was about police oversight, so that got a big focus. Like Mara said, in all our YPDs we start by letting youth problem-share, talk about their community, and then we’d introduce content about their rights with police, spend some time working on communication skills, and help youth refine how they’re going to present their views and opinions. We may not even bring in legal content until session 3 or 4 when we have a rapport. We bring in officers periodically throughout to let them get to know each other, so when you get to the culminating activity, which is about sharing perspectives, they’re in a better place to do that even though it can be such a charged topic. Sometimes you can’t have officers present at the very start, and other places you can. That decision is made on the advice of program partners who know the community well.
MC: The PLEI content about the law also includes some things that aren’t as tangible, that are about how the system actually works. We’re up front about the fact that there are laws and rules on the books, and there are different realities on the street. So we may spend some time talking about the operation of the police officer’s mind – what they’re seeing, what they look for, how things escalate, for example with the use of force. What puts them “in hot pursuit”? How does police discretion work? These things aren’t written but they really help to form the decision-making of the officer and impact how an interaction will go.
MT: And so that’s one of the ways that a YPD is different from a traditional, “know your rights” type of workshop?
JR: Yes. The officer is there to talk about those intangible things you don’t normally get in a PLEI workshop but which make all the difference. Young people don’t usually get access to those insights. No one really does! So we’re trying to fill in those gaps.
MC: And they really help inform a young person’s decision-making – when youth know more about the rules of engagement, they change what their response is going to be. We’re having these conversations early, in a safe space, and then this knowledge is applied later when you’ve got emotions running high and other elements in play. Behaviour is not guaranteed to change, but participants always say they would do things differently after the YPD. That’s important because it shows us that everybody just wants to know the rules of engagement. How can they be expected to play by those rules if they don’t know what they are?
MT: So who’s teaching the legal content? Is that the police officer too?
MC: We bring in criminal defence lawyers and sometimes Crowns. Usually the ideal situation is having both.
JR: In some very charged situations, we’ve had defence counsel only, because of the perceived association between Crowns and police. To achieve a perceived power balance in the room, we had to ensure that we included lawyers who were seen as allies (in the eyes of the youth).
MC: They’re typically lawyers we’ve worked with before or who have some knowledge of working with youth. The youth are going to have lots of questions around being stopped and detained – we’ll go through a scenario and what might flow from that incident: what does detention look like, what happens when the officer asks you questions but you don’t want to talk, we go through all of that. But one key role for lawyers, even beyond the knowledge they bring, is to help develop the youth’s communication skills. We bring in lawyers who themselves have strong communication and facilitation skills, and they work with the facilitator to talk about aggressive vs passive vs assertive communication styles and help give the youth chances to practice how they want to communicate their ideas. In some programs, we talk about things like empathy and evidence – things lawyers use in their daily jobs that will help the youth understand different perspectives and look for reliable sources of information.
JR: A lot of that happens through role playing and skits, which are a major part of the YPD program.
MT: Is that the “dialogue” part? What do you ask the young people to do with what they’ve learned?
MC: Yes, that’s the culminating activity. Where youth are talking to officers about how they can improve youth-police relations in the community. So offering their ideas and some of the things they’d like to see officers doing. And the officers comment on those observations and sit with youth to brainstorm and build out some of the ideas they have shared.
MT: Is that a big, facilitated group conversation?
JR: It varies. In some cases, youth spend a few weeks putting together a skit they use to show what they see happening, what they see is problematic, and they’ll use that as a jumping off point. There’s always some sort of facilitated discussion which allows young people to present, officers to say they’ve heard it, and share their perspective. It goes back and forth. The culminating activity often affects how officers see the youth, and how well they understand how the youth see them.
MT: So do you think there’s a role for PLEI in supporting social movements?
MC: People can’t be expected to play by rules they don’t understand. They can’t be expected to pursue the regular course of changing those rules without some understanding. Often we go out and see that people are passionate and communities are even organized, but they’re operating off of misinformation. And it spreads like wildfire and makes problems worse. We’ve seen whole communities that thought if an officer came to your door in a raid environment, they need to show you their search warrant on the spot – and if they didn’t, you had every legal right to block your door and not let them in. The whole community thought that. (It’s not true, and it could lead to huge problems when someone acts on it.)
JR: One particular example comes to mind. We had a situation where we were being invited into Toronto communities for regular 101 type sessions on your rights with police. We held these sessions on Toronto Community Housing property, and we heard from the youth that officers kept asking them questions, saying, “No, we’re agents, you have to answer my questions.” The youth asked us what that meant. We didn’t know, defence counsel didn’t know – nobody knew! This happened not long after the Danzig shootings and tensions between certain communities and the police were running high.
MC: Yeah, we worked with the Community Crisis Response Program at the City of Toronto and other partners to get some stakeholders together and find out what was actually happening. At the table was a police officer with great historical knowledge who brought up the fact that Toronto Police Service and TCH had an “Agent of the Landlord” agreement, which meant TCH gave them the right to act with the delegated powers of the landlord when on TCH property. This impacts a lot of your rights, including when you have to show ID and that kind of thing. So we developed new programs, in response to community requests, to respond to that particular issue.
We try to give information about legal rights, but also to build skills and relationships to increase people’s ability to act. The community is now very aware and very vocal about these issues – and, of course, about carding and related issues more generally, for larger social reasons we can’t take credit for.
It matters because those people thought they were just being treated differently because they were (mostly) people of colour living in social housing. How could they challenge or change that? You think, I’m going to live here, and I can’t and don’t want to change my colour, so what can I possibly do? Now they know there are more layers, and some of those layers are actually addressable. You’ll have more success trying to change a policy vs someone’s gut instincts about you. Now they are mobilized in a grassroots way to pressure the city to work closer with the Toronto Police Service around these issues.
MT: So that starts with doing rights-based education and believing people when they say, “that’s not how it has been happening for us, in our community.”
JR: That’s right. At the same time, I’m nervous about people who say “Knowledge is Power” when it comes to public legal education. That’s not completely true. Knowledge is part of it, and then there’s a whole lot more people need in order to be change makers.
MC: I give the analogy in programs that I could know how to build a treehouse, but if I don’t have the materials and tools and I don’t have the time to put in and do the work, I can’t build the house! And that’s where knowledge on its own falls down. You need skills and resources and opportunities. Many of those things people have already, and some we can help build.JR: So our approach to PLEI is an expansive one that considers all the other pieces.
PLEI can evolve. This is one piece.
JR: It should be contextual, always, and responding to a community’s real life. That’s where we can support people in advocating for themselves.
Michelle Thompson is OJEN's Manager of Legal and Digital Development. She also works part time as a researcher and writing with the CLEO Centre for Research & Innovation. Michelle brings a background in social justice law and a passion for advocacy, culture, and communication to her work with OJEN and CLEO.