Two dozen San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) personnel made their way across San Quentin’s Lower Yard on Nov. 22 and stood among men they may have previously arrested. It was a part of the second “Blue-on-Blue Conversation” (BBC) held at the prison.
Former SF Deputy District Attorney Marisa Rodriguez, now head of the San Francisco Office of Cannabis, organized the first BBC on May 24. “We thought this experience was powerful and eye popping,” said SFPD Commander David Lazar.
“Often we don’t see the other side,” said SFPD Chief Will Scott at the second BBC. “We make an arrest, testify and don’t see the other side and how they are impacted.”
Deputy Chief Greg McEachern, added, “I want people in the department to see the impact and get a better understanding of their role and responsibilities as officers—to see the human side of things. When you put handcuffs on someone, there’s a human being there.”
The line officers, sergeants, lieutenants, and captains as well as two civilians convened in the prison’s Protestant Chapel. About two dozen incarcerated men, along with local Bay Area volunteers and a prison staffer, joined the officers in a large circle to introduce themselves.
Some police officers told the BBC participants, “We’re ordered to be here.” Officer Michael Amorose added, “I don’t mind gaining experience.”
After the introductions, the participants went into small circles for more personal discussions. The prisoners broke the ice by talking about their first interaction with the police. The officers talked about why they joined the force. The conversation topics varied from respecting each other in the community to the power of effective communication skills to de-escalate tense encounters.
“I came with an open mind, and I’m taking away the experiences of people and their interaction with police,” said Officer Amorose. “I told the people in my circle about my experience, and they took something away.”
Deputy Chief McEachern added, “My thoughts are not the same as when I first became an officer 29 years ago. Now, they are, ‘How can I give newer officers my knowledge? When you grew up, how did you see the police—what were your views?’ Knowing that could help our young officers.”
Rafael Cuevas, an incarcerated peer-to-peer educator, said, “What would help is to give better choices to people who think it’s okay to break the law—arresting people who break the law and sending them to prison does not stop crime, but arresting them and then offering them better choices will have better outcomes.”
Troy Young, who recently earned parole suitability, added, “Talking works. There’s power in just speaking a kind word—speak to the community—every time I see you and you speak to me. That’s what you’ll be remembered by—it’s how we treat each other that counts.”
After about an hour in the small circles, the participants went back to the large circle to talk about what they’ve learned.
Chief Scott talked about a poll that asked SFPD personnel about their values.
“What rang through was everybody wants to be treated with respect; it didn’t come from me; it came from the officers,” Scott said.
He said a major topic in his small circle was being treated with respect by police officers, “Sharing that is profound.”
Officer Nathan Chew added, “If you’re respectful and not judgmental, even with a ticket or arrest, it’s returned. You have to show that compassion and respect.”
Sergeant Jeffery Aloise, a 20-year veteran with SFPD, works in the Mission District.
Aloise said he understands the power of having a good relationship with the community as well as the importance of trust—“to treat people the same, as human beings.” He said, “Having the experience of coming into San Quentin and being in this forum will help.”
For the past three years, Marcy Ginsburg has been coming into the prison once a week as a facilitator for Criminal Gangs (CGA).
“CGA forces men to dig into the deep recesses of their lives. It’s unbelievable to see their change, just from talking.”
In an effort to be honest and to change his criminal thinking, Antoine Smith said, “I had to become accountable, and in order to do that I had to look at myself.”
Referring to the experience of talking to police officers at both BBC events, San Quentin News (SQN) staffer Juan Espinosa said, “I feel more confident to approach a police officer and be a part of the community.”
Lieutenant Derrick Jackson is a 24-year veteran with SFPD.
Jackson previously worked with the gang task unit. He now works robbery. He said his experience investigating robberies gives him the chance to see some of the social factors that lead to crime. He said that his experience in San Quentin, of witnessing healing, lets him “see a system that’s working.”
SQN adviser Nikki Meredith expressed hearing “cultures of cruelty” from listening to the shared experiences of police officers and prisoners. She was, however, encouraged about the future of policing in San Francisco after hearing an older officer say that the younger officers are “the most educated, well-trained class we’ve ever had.”
After hearing many of the incarcerated men speak honestly about the reasons they chose a criminal lifestyle, Chief Scott commented that accountability was also an important factor in his belief in second chances.
“Being here gave me a new understanding of accountability,” Scott said. “This puts accountability at a high level.”