SF Police forums gain momentum, energy
The forum is called Blue and Blue, an ongoing series of conversations between San Francisco police officers and residents of San Quentin.
“It’s really important for us to bridge the gap between us enforcing the law and arresting people on the streets, versus coming in here and meeting you,” said police Lt. Feliks Gasanyan. “We want to understand how you came to be here and what we can do.”
It was the latest in a series of forums arranged by the San Quentin News. Forums have included police officers, judges, politicians and teachers.
The forums feature candid conversations with the visitors and incarcerated residents.
The latest event was held Aug. 26 in SQ’s Garden Chapel. The incarcerated people in attendance represented an estimated 1,300 years of sentences combined.
As participants sat in a large circle waiting for the event to start, soft murmurs of conversation could be heard between the incarcerated men — dressed in their blue prison uniforms — and the men and women of the police department who had left their blue uniforms outside.
Emcee Vincent Turner started the event by acknowledging that many people had been harmed by the crimes of the incarcerated. A reverent moment of silence was held in their honor.
After individual introductions, Turner set the table for the small group discussions to follow and addressed the importance of people’s ability to change for the better.
“When you look around this room you see a lot people dressed in blue,” said Turner, a resident of SQ for the last five years. “We’re all human, we all make mistakes. But a lot of the guys here have earned college degrees and have facilitated some really important groups. We help show change is possible and that barriers can be broken. That’s what we’re doing today — the arrest isn’t the end result, it’s just a step in the process.”
This theme was also expressed by Officer Brian Donohue who said he’d “never seen the other side of the cycle from start to finish.” He recounted dropping people off at the county jail but then wondering what went on inside and what would happen during the rest of their journey. The forum was his first time stepping inside a prison.
For the incarcerated, there was curiosity as to what the journey was like for those in blue on the other side.
“I came today because in my city [of Oakland] there is a lot going on,” said SQ resident Eric “Marquiz” Sherouse. “And some people I know have been murdered by police … So I’m trying to have a dialogue and understand how it got to this point where there is so much animosity.”
Sgt. Laura Colin, who works in a crime prevention unit, spoke to her reasons for coming. “When I heard about this program, it was especially important for me because when I was little girl my father was incarcerated. So it’s a lot more personal for me.”
The police present expressed insight and compassion towards those behind bars.
“How do we see each other as humans?” asked Officer Thomas Mora, who is a hostage negotiator. “We have a family at home. You all are not your crime, and you have families too.”
Sgt. Colin said her father wasn’t a bad man; he just made some bad decisions. “Anyone of us could be one step away from being in here,” she said.
Lt. Gasanyan described growing up in the rough Tenderloin district of San Francisco and how easily he could have ended up in prison.
“I’ve always heard that if you want change, you have to be the change and not part of the problem,” he said. “As a foot patrol officer, I get out of the car and really get to interact with people. I know it can be a fine line between becoming an incarcerated person and being a cop, so I’m trying to understand what brought you all here.”
Brian Asey, facilitator of one of the five small discussion groups, spoke about the childhood traumas that often underlie the reasons a person commits crimes and becomes incarcerated.
He shared about his tumultuous childhood growing up with a single mom and an abusive step-dad who was a dealer, which he said contributed to his eventual addictions and crime. At the time he didn’t realize how his home life was affecting him or that it wasn’t normal. He told the group, “Through taking groups here at San Quentin, I understand now that trauma and its effects.”
When Asey asked the police in his group what the toughest parts of their jobs were, their answering was revealing.
Sgt. Eric Mahoney said having your family not know whether you were going to come home alive each day was tough, on top of the other sacrifices that come with the job. He also noted the importance of being aware of your own traumas and not letting them control you at work.
Officer Donohue said the worst part for him was getting yelled at and cussed out at big arrests. “You try to shake it off, but later it stings,” he said.
Officer Mora explained that seeing the trauma of crime is really tough, including what led people to commit crime. He said it was hard knowing that making an arrest was likely just a Band-Aid and that more comprehensive solutions are needed.
Sgt. Colin talked about working crime scene investigation and being exposed to some horrific murder scenes that are “hard to get out of your head.” Officer Mahoney agreed but added that having a grieving relative at the crime scene to console for hours is even worse.
In response to these candid admissions from the police, Sherouse reflected on his own crime, saying, “You guys are human too. We all experience trauma. I realize now that some first responder had to deal with my crime scene, had to deal with a body and blood on the ground.”
After the small group discussions, participants came together in a circle for final reflections on the day.
Lt. Gasanyan said he didn’t know what to expect having never been inside a prison, but he was grateful for the opportunity to have dialogue with incarcerated people in this setting and not just when enforcing the law on the streets.
SQ resident Marcus Eugene came away impressed. “There was mutual empathy on both parts — blue and blue. At one time I thought all police officers were bad, but now I realize there’s a lot of new ones trying to help the community,” he said. “We are not our crime, they are not their uniform — we’re all human.”
Allison Maxie, a public relations employee of the police department, said, “Honestly, I was a little intimidated … I am impressed how everyone has taken accountability.” She said that she was surprised by how many incarcerated people thought policing was an important profession that plays a vital role in society. “I just wish more officers could come along,” she said.
SQ resident Greg Eskridge said the youth need good role models, including the formerly incarcerated who can show them that police officers are also part of our communities. He spoke to the need for a program on the outside where formerly incarcerated people can have dialogues with police like at the forum. “At the end of the day, we all want our communities to be safe,” Eskridge said.
Turner closed the event with words of inspiration and a question for all to ponder. “We are men that are committed to rehabilitation and restorative justice,” he said. “Please keep spreading the word … It’s beneficial to us and beneficial to you. And remember we will be getting out some day, so how do you want us to come out?”
After these parting words from the emcee, participants gathered outside in the courtyard halfway between the memorial to fallen correctional officers and the chapel where the incarcerated come to have their prayers heard. They all stood together shoulder to shoulder for a group photo — men and women, the blue and the blue.