EVERYONE’S BECOME SO AGITATED over NFL football players kneeling during the national anthem that we’ve forgotten why former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling in the first place.
It’s about race — a topic that most of America hates to confront. One side hurls accusations of endemic racism. Another retorts with denials, as if 300 years of history never happened. And then you’ve got police shootings.
Black lives matter.
Blue lives matter.
Bruised lives matter.
Yes, its a lot easier to scream at each other on Facebook about football, patriotism and free speech.
But in eighth-grade classes across Manchester starting next month, police and young teenagers will be taking on those thorny issues of police, race and youth. They won’t be screaming.
With giggles and laughter (and some serious discussion), they will take part in the Mirror Project, a homegrown effort that involves role reversals among uniformed police officers and eighth-graders.
Cops will take on the role of mouthy, uncooperative youth. Somewhat bewilderedly, youths will be given a badge and encouraged to act like bossy, arrest-happy police.
During an hour-long meeting, they will watch a video clip — filmed locally with real Manchester cops and kids — of both sides acting badly. They’ll do their own play acting. They’ll see a video of proper behavior. And they will discuss topics such as communication and respect.
“Whether you’re black, white, Hispanic, Asian, if a police officer shows up and you’re respectful, the outcome typically will be positive,” said Matt Larochelle, a Manchester police detective sergeant involved in the effort.
Similar efforts are underway in Nashua and Rochester.
Collyn Russell, a Manchester High School Central freshman who saw it last year, liked the video, as well as how kids could act out the role of cops. His friend, Nate Volkmann, said Manchester police aren’t like the cops in the news.
“Most police put in the news are for bad things they did,” he said.
The Mirror Project grew out of the federally funded Disproportionate Minority Contact program, a bureaucratic mouthful of a name if ever there was one. But it’s an effort to reduce friction between minorities and police.
Nationally, black youth are three times more likely than whites to come in contact with the criminal justice system, according to Andrew C. Smith, the state coordinator of the program, which is funded by the U.S. Justice Department. He works out of the Sununu Youth Services Center.
When the program started in New Hampshire, it involved day-long training sessions for police. Police grumbled that it seemed they were being blamed for the disproportionate contact, Smith said.
At one point, a Manchester police officer asked what’s being done to teach young minorities how to deal with police. Thus the name — Mirror Project.
“This is unique. There’s nobody else in the country doing this,” said Smith, who said he’s fielded inquiries from Virginia, Tennessee, New Jersey and Florida about the program.
Recently, Manchester police and its Disproportionate Minority Contact committee celebrated the launch of its most recent video, produced gratis by the Manchester firm Ad4ce Media. It’s filmed in front of N&N market next to Central High School.
It features school resource officers Guy Kozowyk and Shannon Jackson acting bossy when they approach a crowd of surly youth. The kids mouth off, pull out their cellphone cameras, the cops start shoving them. Pandemonium ensues.
Smith said the video is an upgrade of previous videos. No scripts or rehearsals; spontaneity is the key.
Authorities are guarded about the Mirror Project. The videos aren’t available online. And only police and kids participate in the sessions.
This year marks the third year that all Manchester eighth-graders will have participated in the Mirror Project, Smith said. The Mirror Project is also presented to kids at the Boys and Girls Club and the Sununu Youth Center.
It’s showing results, Smith said. New Hampshire’s rate of disproportionate minority contact is down, Smith said.
“It’s not only for minorities,” Smith said. “We want to take all juveniles out of the system. If you do so, the over-representation takes care of itself.”