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Project Unity works to build relationships with Dallas officers and teens in mock traffic stops

"We have to have these conversations because people have died as a result of a traffic stop," said Sheldon Smith, president of NPBA.
Credit: Lourdes Vazquez

DALLAS — Safety is a concern not just for officers but citizens when they are pulled over. To bridge the divide of trust and have a better understanding of each other, Project Unity launched "Together We Learn." 

Richie Butler, founder of Project Unity says the program arose following several incidents involving officers around the country in 2016.

“We posed the question, 'how do we reduce those incidents?' And more importantly was recognizing that everybody wants to go home safely,” said Butler.

The program is sponsored by the National Black Police Association and begins in the classroom, where students talk with Dallas police officers, ask questions and voice their own concerns. 

Sheldon Smith, president of the National Black Police Association says this program is crucial and could be the difference between life or death.

“What should be a minute and 30 seconds to a two-minute interaction, people have actually died from it so why don’t we talk about it,” said Smith.

He recognizes that there is a distrust of officers in many communities of color and says a program like this is not one-sided.

“It’s also about educating law enforcement,” Butler said. “I think they need to be sensitized also to the challenges of what it means to be a person of color.”

Smith adds Dallas police officers do not tolerate racism and it is also their responsibility to speak up if they encounter an officer mistreating a citizen.

"I think we can do great things just by talking to the community and having events like this where we’re teaching and we’re learning," said Smith

Jesuit Dallas students’ take part in mock traffic stops

Over 200 seniors at Jesuit Dallas participated in Together We Learn's program last week. Cars aligned the fire lane at Jesuit Dallas and a few Dallas police squad cars were behind them for the mock traffic stop.

Students broke off into groups and took turns as the driver or passenger in the vehicles.

One officer approached a vehicle and notified the students they were speeding and asked for their proof of insurance.

“Being able to break down barriers and to have some fun while learning really helps us to all come to a place of greater honesty in our work together,” said Rich Perry, social justice and community director for Jesuit Dallas. 

Credit: Lourdes Vazquez

As students joked the officer also let them know, "while we are joking right now, you don’t how the officer will react or what kind of day they’re having." 

Smith places equal responsibility on officers. 

“If our attitude is bad then that experience is going to be bad not only for the person that we stopped, but it’ll be a bad experience for an officer,” said Smith.

Students talk through the simulation afterward and officers also notify them of steps they could take if they had to file a complaint. 

It is all about creating relationships and empathy for one another, Butler says.

“Somebody has to take the step to come out and say, ‘hey, I’m a police officer you don’t have to be afraid of me. I’m here to serve you. If my service is bad, this is what you can do,’” said Smith.

Butler hopes to bring the program to more schools across Dallas-Fort Worth.