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Help for a Black and Blue America

Photo: Aaron Daye, UF Advancement

Cops gain as much from these talks as do students. Officers start to understand the real-life issues that young people are facing and realize “there is more to being a cop than just arresting people and writing tickets,” says Will Halvosa (top row, purple shirt). Jerome Reed (bottom row, third from right) brought 10 student-athletes from The Rock School to this meeting with GPD officers in July.

In the wake of the George Floyd killing, two UF alumni bring area youth and Gainesville police together to bridge a gap and forge a relationship.

When the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis touched off a nationwide cry for justice in late May, many Americans felt moved to take immediate action, whether it was to protest, use the hashtag #BLM on social media or bend a knee. In Alachua County, two UF alumni joined forces to defuse local tensions by bringing together area youth and Gainesville Police Department (GPD) officers for a series of heartfelt, face-to-face dialogues.

Will Halvosa (BA ’89) is a retired captain and 30-year veteran of the GPD who coordinates its ongoing program to address over-policing of minority communities. He has facilitated more than 100 dialogues between GPD and at-risk youth in the last seven years, to help break the school-to-prison pipeline. Jerome Reed (MAMC ’16) is the president and founder of R.A.W.E. Recruits, a Gainesville business that helps high school student-athletes succeed by building skills and fostering hope.

In July, Halvosa and Reed launched in-person meetings for local student-athletes and GPD officers to share their most pressing concerns about police/community relations in Gainesville. The “R.A.W.E.” in Reed’s business name stands for “Reaching Athletes with Education,” but in these small group session, emotions can be raw as well as participants work through distrust, anger, fear and everything in between.

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Dialogues like these between police and youth are “part of the solution” to improving police department/community relations, says Will Halvosa, shown in the foreground talking to youth from The Rock School. “They create the trust and build up the fellowship with our community and our kids,” he says.

At Reed’s invitation, local TV reporters interviewed participants afterward.

Athletes ages 16 to 18 from The Rock School and P.K. Yonge were among the first to participate in the dialogues, which culminate in each student being paired with a cop for a one-on-one meal. Just by listening to each another’s stories, asking questions or sharing a pizza, many found they had less to fear, and more in common, than they thought.

“The student athletes understand that some of these cops had similar upbringings and similar goals when they were their age,” says Reed. “They’re really one and the same; they just chose this particular career path.”

Having that one-on-one hour with a cop is something students love, says Halvosa.

“Afterward, I’ll ask, ‘Who had the best cop?’ and every kid raises their hand,” he says.

Seeing that spontaneous reaction drives home to police officers the magnitude of their power, not only for policing, but for social change, says Halvosa.

“That dialogue will be memorialized in that youth’s head forever,” says Halvosa. “They’ll always go back and remember that at this time and date, and how old they were, that they sat next to a cop and had that conversation.”

“We [cops] have to understand and be responsible with the power we have,” he adds. “And we have to hold dear our ability to influence kids and community members in ways that are positive.”

Here are excepts from our recent conversation with Will Halvosa and Jerome Reed.

Gator Nation News: Will, you have been coordinating dialogues between Gainesville police and at-risk youth since 2014 or so.

Halvosa: Yes, with the help of the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding.

GNN: How did GPD’s collaboration with Jerome and R.A.W.E. Recruits begin?

Halvosa: Jerome called us a week or two after the George Floyd murder [May 25] and wanted to bring the student athletes in. I said, “Look, the country’s in crisis right now, emotions are raw, there are all these events happening around the country. I don’t think we can be very productive with community members. Our role right now is just to listen.” But Jerome really felt a need for that discussion. He said, “No, Will, we have to get this thing moving. I’m afraid things are percolating in a negative way.” I credit him for reaching out to me like that.

GNN: Jerome, what were your student-athletes saying about the George Floyd murder?

Reed: They thought it was incredible that this [police killing unarmed Black men] is still going on in today’s society and how there seemed to be no reprimand. They couldn’t understand why that was happening. They were starting to get antagonistic toward local police, and they didn’t know these police-youth dialogues were already happening with GDP…. I thought, ‘Let’s get the conversation going with the whole team and their coaches and the police before something similar to George Floyd happens in our community.’

GNN: Jerome, you invited local TV channels to start covering these events in July. What was your impetus?

Reed: I thought if these student-athletes and coaches don’t know about the GPD youth dialogues, then I’m sure a larger portion of our city doesn’t know. Let’s get the word out and have some more of these talks.

GNN: Will, how did you feel about letting reporters in?

Halvosa: Oh, initially we were putting the brakes on. I said to him, “Jerome, I’ve been doing this a long time. We usually don’t bring the media because this needs to be substantive and meaningful and sincere. We have some real relationship issues in our community between our youth of color and our officers, and that’s our focus.” But he got me to realize the community needs to see what we’re doing to break down barriers.

The GPD-youth dialogues begin with soliciting words that students associate with law enforcement, as a way to examine preconceived notions, stereotypes and fears. This list was made at a July 2020 dialogue initiated by Jerome Reed, leader of R.A.W.E. Recruits. Photo by Aaron Daye.

GNN: What has community response been since WCJB, News4Gainesville and other outlets began covering the talks?

Halvosa: There has been an enormous, overwhelmingly positive amount of comments on social media. People are glad to see we’re working to bridge the gap.

GNN: What are some unexpected things participants have learned from these dialogues?

Halvosa: There’s this perception from a lot of the youth that we actively shoot people. They’re surprised when they find out most of us [at the GPD] haven’t pulled the trigger with our firearms. We’ve all pulled our guns out, but actually pulling the trigger and striking somebody – that’s not normal here. I never did it in my 30-year career, and most officers here have not.

GNN: Going back to when 2014 when you first started these dialogues with Gainesville’s at-risk youth, what were young people most concerned about then?

Halvosa: Youth were asking law enforcement, why did we kill Trayvon Martin? Well, if you understand the history of those events, you realize that law enforcement didn’t kill Trayvon Martin [Martin was shot and killed by a civilian, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator for his gated community, in February 2012]. But our response wasn’t, “Hey, we didn’t do that.” It was, “Why do you think we did that?” It’s about looking at the genesis and origin of these perceptions.

GNN: I imagine the cops had a lot of learning to do, too.

Halvosa: Yes, law enforcement has perceptions about youth of color that we really had to address. Most of the kids we work with are at-risk or marginalized kids. You need interventions to help them change the trajectory of their lives. It’s fascinating to see the officers understand and realize the trauma that some of them have been through…. In the end, we all come from the same community, our kids all go to school here, we share the same churches. We’re part of the same family fabric that makes up Gainesville. So, if one of our community members is in crisis, we’re all in crisis, and we need to address it.

GNN: Jerome, have your student-athletes been surprised by anything they’ve learned?

Reed: After our second event, one kid told me he was shocked to learn that the police officer he’d been paired with, both of them grew up in the same area of Gainesville. They were into the same things in high school; they loved football and the same teams. So, it’s a great opportunity for these students to see these officers aren’t so far off from where they are – and seeing that they can grow alongside them.

Student-athletes may come to the police-youth dialogues with distrust, fear and anger, but most leave feeling calmer and empowered. Here, Alec Oglesby, an athlete from The Rock School, bumps elbows as he receives his certificate of completion from retired GPD captain Will Halvosa. Photo by Aaron Daye.

GNN: Do the students still feel the same level of anger or frustration after participating in these talks?

Reed: I see a lot of calmness. One kid came up to me immediately after the P.K. Yonge session and he said, “You know, Jerome. I didn’t want to be here when I walked in. I’ve never seen this many officers in uniform in one place without there being trouble afoot. But now that we’ve gone through these last three hours, I’m super glad I came. And I would want to do it again if it happened again.”

If there’s any gold standard for what you would want a student-athlete to say after an event like this, that’s it.

GNN: Will, how are individual police officers affected by these talks?

Halvosa: You start to see the officers’ world open up. Some of the cops come to the job with a wider perspective. But other officers have to learn there is more to being a cop than just arresting people and writing tickets…. The benefit is that they’ll take that new perspective with them as they get promoted throughout the agency and start to influence policy. They start to surround themselves with a positive network of officers that feel liked minded, but they’re not afraid, and they’re courageous enough to tell officers who aren’t like minded what their position is. It changes the culture because they have different expectations.

GNN: You seem very committed to bridging the gap between police and at-risk youth.

Halvosa: Totally committed. In the juvenile justice system, we have been doing things in a draconian style for years, and that has to change. If we really want to change institutions, we have to address systemic issues; law enforcement has got to be part of education, part of housing, part of transportation. I mean, if you would have called me a social worker 20 years ago, the fight was on! But that’s the community’s expectation now, and I think we need to listen.

GNN: Any last words?

Halvosa: These police-youth dialogues aren’t a panacea, but they are an important piece of the puzzle we need to continue having. You can’t do these once every four years; you have to do them regularly because every three or four years, you have a whole new group of kids coming up. We need to be vigilant and educated and understand the issues they’re dealing with.

Reed: [Rapper] J. Cole has a song “Middle Child,” where he feels like he’s in the middle of two generations, and that how I feel with this project – old enough to operate in this space and young enough to connect with Generation Y. So, I’m excited to see where this can go. These kids are going to be the ones taking care of us one day, so whatever we can do to sow positive change, that’s what I’m all about.

Learn about the mission of R.A.W.E Recruits and how it is equipping students to win in sport, school and life at https://rawerecruits.com/

Visit this GPD page to learn about the department’s monthly police-youth dialogues and view a video of a session in action.

If your Alachua County organization would like to participate in a police-youth dialogue, please contact Will Halvosa at HalvosaWT@cityofgainesville.org