Prince George’s Co. police, residents train together to strengthen relationship

The Affinity Project's goal is to draw together law enforcement and citizens and to help each side understand and overcome inherent biases.

WASHINGTON — Members of the Prince George’s County Police Department and community members have wrapped up a two-day workshop of training and role-playing exercises aimed at improving relations between police and citizens.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world to divide people. What’s difficult is bringing people together,” said Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski, one of the 30 participants in the Affinity Project workshop.

The Affinity Project is co-sponsored by the National Law Enforcement Museum and the Illumination Project of Charleston, South Carolina. The goal is to draw together law enforcement and citizens and to help each side understand and overcome inherent biases.

“Implicit bias … is a mental shortcut that our mind makes between two seemingly unrelated ideas,” said Kris Marsh, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who provides bias training for the Prince George’s County Police Department.

“We don’t always talk to each other. The citizens talk among themselves [and] the officers talk among themselves. We have different perspectives, but it’s really great to get both entities in the room and start having a really thoughtful conversation,” she said.

Rev. Kylon Middleton is the co-founder of The Illumination Project, a joint citizens-police initiative that was founded in 2010. The project was propelled by the 2015 murders of nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

“These last two days, we’ve been in dialogue — police and citizens, we’ve come up with ideas that have enlightened us,” he said.

Rebecca Looney is the senior director of exhibits and programs at the National Law Enforcement Museum.

“What we want to do as a museum is strengthen that relationship between law enforcement and the community. And the Affinity Project, I think, is a very strong way to do that,” she said.

Participants said the workshop’s dialogue revealed some misunderstandings on both sides, which were remedied by discussions of public fears addressed by explanations of police procedures.

For example, Stawinski explained that a driver stopped by a police officer may be unnecessarily frightened or worried when an officer is seemingly taking a long time, when the officer is simply waiting for the radio relay of computerized data necessary to resolve the stop.

“This is about staking out an ambitious course … using a specific structure that allows people to foster that understanding, find those commonalities … And then, most importantly … set expectations for one another and move toward those expectations,” Stawinski said.

Prince George’s County Police Department is the first to participate in The Affinity Project, whose sponsors hope to expand to law enforcement agencies across the nation.

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