Cleveland residents take police on 'reverse' ride-alongs to improve understanding
Police departments across the country offer ride-alongs to members of the community to help the public understand the issues that officers face at work. One nonprofit in Cleveland offers the same service — but community members take police officers on tours of the community.
The idea for the “reverse" ride-alongs came to Jan Thrope more than a decade ago after she took a ride-along with Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) police.
A CMHA officer drove her through an area she’d visited regularly while writing a book on “champions of change,” people who were investing in and improving their communities at a grassroots level. She’d been welcomed into people’s homes who were eager to share their work planting fruit trees and providing mentorships.
CMHA police gave her a bulletproof vest.
“The formation of [the officer’s] perspective of the community was totally different from my perspective of the community,” Thrope said. “Neither one of us has a balanced understanding. Police and the community were afraid of one another.”
Today, Thrope’s nonprofit Inner Visions of Cleveland partners with Joe Black, a former health equity officer for the Sisters of Charity Health System, to provide several ride-alongs a year to police officers, nursing students, clergy and others whose work could benefit from a better understanding of the communities they serve.
More than 420 police officers from CMHA and Cleveland have gone on ride-alongs with the group, according to Thrope.
A "reverse" ride-along consists of police and residents driving through neighborhoods together, Thrope said. Residents point out assets and challenges within the community to help provide context. Then, the group stops at locations within the community to share a meal, an activity and have conversations.
The "reverse" ride-alongs stop at as many places as possible to represent the fullness of the community with respect to race, age and culture, Thrope said. Stops include recreation centers, barber shops, homeless shelters, daycare and senior centers and visits with people with long-term medical issues.
While driving, residents point out what’s to love about the community.
“We want police to feel personally connected to the community instead of viewing it as part of their job,” Thrope said. “We hope they find places they want to return to when they get off work.”
Too often what police and community members have in common is fear, she said.
“I think we fight what we fear and we protect what we love,” she said. "So I thought, "how can we make each really want to learn and to know and to care about each other?"
The ride-alongs have taken groups to Refresh Collective, a nonprofit that uses music and design to help people flourish, and the Khnemu Lighthouse, a community outreach center in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood to bring formerly incarcerated persons and police recruits together for a conversation about recidivism and how to build trust.
“The reverse ride-along helps to ease the tension between the people and the police,” said participant Gwen Garth, founder of Kings & Queens of Art, a grassroots artist collaborative in Cleveland. “Being an ex-felon, I know it helped me.”
Historically, racism has driven a wedge between the police and the communities they serve, said Black. The "reverse" ride-alongs help participants better connect to the community. He’s even found himself learning and growing because of it.
“We are creating a space for people to learn,” he said. “We’ve generated enough experience where people have the opportunity to modify behavior. We believe those subtle micro-scenarios have that kind of impact.”
The "reverse" ride-alongs can underscore that assumptions can be faulty, Thrope said. On one, participants saw a man lying on a public bench. He looked homeless, but he wasn’t. He had fallen ill due to diabetes.
“It opened up the conversation about diabetes in the community and housing insecurities,” she said.
Police recruits have often responded with a desire for more community engagement throughout police training as well as once they are placed in a district, said Thrope.
“When you’re up close and personal to something, it just takes on a whole new meaning,” she said.