In a Newark conference room, police officers and community members sat in a semicircle to discuss their personal and collective trauma. They talked about decades of mistrust, and they talked about moving on.
“I don’t like cops,” said Fakheria Bradley, who spent years in New Jersey’s infamous Edna Mahan women’s prison, where 15 officers and staffers were recently charged with assaulting inmates. “I don’t like them in my face because of the trauma I went through in prison, the trauma I went through walking the streets of Newark.”
Bradley’s admission came at the start of the two-day Trauma To Trust, a program run by Brooklyn-based nonprofit Equal Justice USA. It brings members of the Newark community – activists from anti-violence groups, youth volunteers, social workers – together with city police officers. The discussions are entirely focused on how trauma affects their daily interactions.
Sitting next to Bradley was Newark police officer Yvie Johnson, who said that although she had a similar upbringing to Bradley, once she became a police officer, “the public don’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 confirmed. “We come in to make a change in this, and then we’re targeted.”
In Newark, the relationship between police and community members has been severely damaged. Since 2016, the Newark Police Department has been under the supervision of a federal monitor after an investigation found that police officers used excessive force, stole property and disproportionately detained and arrested black people. Trauma To Trust training is not required by the federal monitor, but the city wants all officers to go through it. More than 300 so far, about a third of the department, have a “community-building trust vehicle,” according to Brian O’Hara, Newark’s director of public safety.
The program aims to help officers and police officers communicate about the different forms of violence they have both experienced. In an era of viral videos of police killings and political disagreements over “defund the police” chants, cities across the country are experimenting with such mediated reconciliation talks.
Led by an Equal Justice USA facilitator, Daniel Ortiz, the talks include startling confessions and deep dives into systemic racism, implicit bias, intergenerational trauma, and mass incarceration. Through it all, he looked for similarities – he asked participants about their favorite food and favorite vacation spots. “There aren’t many times when we can get the community and officers in the same room, act like one, act like regular people,” Ortiz told the group. “The only thing that separates us is the uniform.”
Almost everyone here spoke a common language – they remembered the same murders, they went to the same schools. When participants were asked to come forward if they’ve ever lost someone to gun violence, almost everyone took a step. Both officers and local residents spoke of absent fathers, food insecurity and mothers living on the streets.
But they disagreed on whether police officers could really ever meaningfully change a history of aggressive policing. Jahmil Reed, an experienced volunteer with the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, spoke to the younger officers in the room: “You are fresh, and you are pure… But over time you get tired of those bosses telling you do not what is right… shit is starting to change.”