DOVER — The kids are getting a seat at the table, as police and community members attempt to improve relationships between law enforcement and the citizenry.
And the spot for the youths was created due to a flop.
The expansion was spurred by the alarming lack of interest in a student video contest, sponsored by the Dover Police Chief’s Advisory Committee and the Dover Police Athletic League in March.
While PCAC, designed to increase police accountability through a joint effort, has an array of participating adults, it clearly didn’t have the younger generation’s attention.
Enter Dover High senior Jordan Demby, called upon to represent a youthful perspective in PCAC. That filtered down to formation of a subcommittee at the school, which now includes three other pupils and more expected to participate.
Through meetings monthly during the academic year — the first was in June — students are learning what drives police, while expressing their concerns to attending officers.
Jordan takes what he hears from the gatherings and reports it to the regular PCAC session.
Early discussion points have included, among others:
In his role as vice president for both Dover High’s senior class and its Black Student Union, Jordan has a lot of opportunity to reach large audiences. He’s joined on the PCAC subcommittee by senior class president Tyasia Cannon and classmates Hanifah Ouro-Sama and Nevaeh Waters.
Jordan, who joined PCAC following a recommendation by DHS Principal Courtney Voshell, shares with the advisory council what he hears from the students at the sessions.
According to Jordan, after meeting with police, “we (heard) some viewpoints from them that kind of tilted our heads a bit. I think we changed some officers’ viewpoints a bit, too, and helped them see things a little bit clearer from the students’ and citizens’ perspective.
“Our meetings ... have been good so far, and I feel that we’re able to communicate thoroughly in a way where we’re not attacking each other. We’re probably all seeing things we might not have seen before.”
Tyasia, a member of multiple social action groups, echoed those thoughts, saying, “The value of this subcommittee is to have more of a middle-ground conversation with police, talk more one-on-one with them and kind of understand where they’re coming from and also put out our children’s voices, as well.”
While Hanifah said she remains “a little (bit) cautious of police” and that she “wouldn’t say (her) perspective on police has shifted too much,” she thinks the meetings have been beneficial.
“I’d say I’m more receptive to who they are and their role inside the community because I can talk to them and get their perspective on these big issues,” she said.
Navaeh said she has a “very neutral opinion on police. I don’t not like (them), but I don’t overly praise them.”
“I feel like, if the whole student body could realize that or digest and take in that they really just want to take care of the students and do the best they can, make sure that they’re safe and well, then everything would probably go a whole lot smoother in school and in the community, as well.”
Dover police Cpl. Demetrius Stevenson coordinates the meetings through his role as the high school’s SRO and has been joined by other participating officers to explain their perspectives. Also, he said, Jordan and the other students have spread word about upcoming events designed to foster better relations between law enforcement and the public.
With the student leaders’ help, Cpl. Stevenson said, “The word is getting out there. This is starting to gain steam. We’re expecting even more students to take part in the November meeting.”
The effects have been noticeable already, he added.
“They’re starting to trust us. They’re starting to actually approach us, and this is coming from the subcommittee,” he said. “They’re starting to feel more comfortable going up to a police officer, feeling more comfortable if they get pulled over for a traffic violation. Their anxiety is not heightened because they’re (learning more about us.)”
PCAC debuted in September 2020, as part of Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson’s initiatives to improve relationships between police and the public.
Following the unsuccessful video contest, the chief quickly realized that adding youth input via the subcommittee was crucial. He pointed to an unfamiliarity of officers’ mind-sets causing the students to have “less trust in the intentions of the patrol officers they encountered working in the neighborhoods in crime-reduction roles.”
“Those discussions were productive and have led to additional topics scheduled for future discussions. Going forward, we want to give as much control as we can on the direction of the youth group to the students themselves. We want to follow their lead and focus on listening as much as possible.”
Chief Johnson said organizers are coordinating with Dover High to make the subcommittee’s meetings easier to attend.
“There has been some difficulty avoiding conflicts with other extracurricular activities and that has hurt attendance in the after-school meetings. We are working with school officials to find a way to shift the meetings into the school day in order to increase participation.”