Braving the Great Divide

With police departments and minority communities in conflict across America, three Sarah Lawrence graduates venture into the chasm.

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From Staten Island to Los Angeles, from Cleveland to Albuquerque to Ferguson, Missouri, high-profile police shootings of unarmed citizens have raised tensions between minority communities and law enforcement nationwide. Three Sarah Lawrence graduates are approaching the deep rift from very different perspectives—and serving as educators along the way.

Sergeant Jared Singer ’03 is responsible for dynamics on the diverse streets of Yonkers, teaching the patrol officers under his supervision through example, clear expectations, and programs that bring police and local residents together to learn from one another.

Promoted to major in the Vermont State Police last year, Ingrid Jonas ’88 is the highest-ranking female in agency history, effecting positive change in what has been a male-dominated profession and culture. Among her leadership credentials, Jonas directed a program that teaches recruits fair and impartial police procedures.

“People have been and are still being abused in this country.” —Major Ingrid Jonas ’88

Jacob Crawford ’00 is co-founder and co-director of WeCopwatch, a national organization that documents police stops on video to hold officers accountable, prevent abuse, and provide evidence for potential use in court. WeCopwatch trains volunteers to serve as witnesses and supporters for people stopped by the police and teaches both volunteers and community members their legal rights.

Crawford’s approach to police-community relations dramatically contrasts with those of Singer and Jonas—he describes himself as an abolitionist, not a reformist—yet all three are committed to addressing the underlying issues that have roiled American law enforcement in recent years.

“I see the value of institutions of justice that work and help people feel safe,” Crawford says. “But I don’t feel the police are the proper outfit for it. I don’t hate cops, but anybody who stands up for anything good will have to deal with them. And I definitely consider them obstacles to those of us who are trying to do things that are good.”

That sentiment flies in the face of the inroads Singer and his squad are making in a tough Yonkers neighborhood. Community policing programs that foster goodwill between law enforcement and the public are nothing new. (The Police Athletic League, begun in tenement neighborhoods in lower Manhattan, traces its origin to 1914.) But the implications of outreach initiatives have garnered increased consideration since a 2014 police shooting left unarmed teenager Michael Brown dead on a Ferguson street.

Many departments are turning their attention to Yonkers, where officers such as Singer, a 12-year veteran, are embracing programs intended to humanize the police as well as the people they serve. On the annual National Night Out Against Crime, for example, a police helicopter lands in a city park to stand for inspection by grade school kids. The department’s Coffee with a Cop program invites local residents to join police officers for a cup of joe. And the Stop and Shake program encourages officers to approach residents with a warm greeting and a firm handshake.

“The key is creating dialogue, understanding where we’re all coming from.” —Sergeant Jared Singer ’03

Singer is particularly proud of his participation in the highly successful Youth Police Initiative, which brings together law enforcement personnel and at-risk youth. The ensuing conversations, usually over pizza, touch on personal histories, family life, thoughts on community issues, and role-reversal exercises that allow cops to walk a mile in the shoes of young constituents—and vice versa. If young people can see police interactions through the perspective of the officers they encounter, Singer says, they’ll better understand why the officers take the actions they do. “A lot of the time the kids are surprised that we are not robots,” Singer says. “It’s a real eye-opener for the kids to see that not everything is black and white, cut and dried.”

The police, in turn, also learn from the kids. “As they learn to see things through our perspective, we gain insight into theirs,” Singer says. “It’s a way to present our life stories to one another. The key is creating dialogue, understanding where we’re all coming from.”

For her part, Jonas never envisioned a career in law enforcement. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence she pursued her passion for social justice, working at a Vermont agency that counseled victims of rape and domestic violence. It’s fair to say her interactions with police were not always positive. In an interview with Seven Days, an independent Vermont newspaper, she recalled taking part in a demonstration against what she considered the tepid response of Burlington police to a reported sexual assault. But over time her outlook on the role of law enforcement began to turn, a shift influenced by the compassion and professionalism displayed by officers who responded to the battered and abused women served by Jonas’ agency. When she was 30, Jonas passed the Vermont State Police entrance exam and embarked on a new career.

As the agency’s former director of Fair and Impartial Policing and Community Affairs, Jonas brought an undiminished dedication to social justice to the hiring and training of Vermont State Police recruits, helping to shift the culture inside what had long been a white male-dominated agency. She guided a comprehensive program designed to diversify the agency’s workforce, improve cultural awareness, and build trust with minority communities. “We ask applicants to speak about an issue or topic about which they feel strongly,” Jonas says. “If they cannot demonstrate a commitment or strong interest in serving the community, then they are not as likely to be selected for the job.”

“We … use our presence as a deescalating or mediating factor in interactions that are aggressive and hostile.” —WeCopwatch Guidelines for Conduct

The state police initiative, Jonas says, is a reflection of a contemporary struggle within law enforcement that’s rooted in mistakes of the past. “We need to be aware and acknowledge the undeniable history of racism, gender violence, and other systemic ways people have been and are still being abused in this country,” Jonas says. “We need a big history lesson as part of our basic training.”

But Crawford remains dubious about the sort of community policing initiatives undertaken by Singer and Jonas. Police departments, he laments, “really haven’t come that far.” His skepticism is rooted in his own interaction with police: As a teenager, he says, he was wrongly accused of a crime he did not commit—then almost immediately exonerated. He says the episode left him with an indelible impression of privilege. “The point is I had everything going for me,” Crawford explains. He says he’s seen many people fall under police scrutiny for alleged lesser offenses and receive greater punishments—“because these institutions were born from white supremacy.”

The experience followed Crawford to Sarah Lawrence and then to Oakland, where he landed after a postgraduation journey in a Volkswagen van. In Oakland he was introduced to Berkeley Copwatch, a grassroots organization that in 1990 had begun documenting police interactions with the homeless. In 2013 Crawford helped use the Copwatch model to launch WeCopwatch as a national organization. A documentary about the group (of which Crawford was an executive producer) premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Crawford emphasizes that the core mission of WeCopwatch is not harassing the police. Rather, he says, the group’s overarching purpose is to “keep people safe.” His fellow Sarah Lawrence graduates in law enforcement would likely describe their work in much the same terms.