‘Don’t make any sudden moves’: Philly residents share experiences with police in hopes for change

Protesters march south on Broad Street. About 200 participated in the action after a grand jury in Louisville, Ky., failed to bring charges against the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Protesters march south on Broad Street. About 200 participated in the action after a grand jury in Louisville, Ky., failed to bring charges against the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

At a public forum aimed at strengthening police-community relations on Monday, Kameelah Rashad described an incident where her 15-year-old son texted her that he’d gotten pulled over by police.

“The next message I get from him is, ‘Mommy, my heart is beating so fast,’” she said. “I couldn’t say to him, ‘Oh it’ll be fine, don’t worry about it’ … I said, ‘Okay, don’t make any sudden moves.’”

She said her son responded with “I know.”

Similarly, Cecelia Thompson worries about how police might interact with her 22-year-old son who is Black and lives with severe autism. She said COVID-19 mitigation efforts have been hard on her son and others living with disabilities, leading to frustration and acting out.

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“I have family members and church members who are on the police force, but nonetheless I still worry. … The first thing you see is not his disability … the first thing they’re seeing is he’s a young Black man. His behaviors can be misunderstood,” she said. “I can lose him because of a misunderstanding.”

Thompson said her son’s behavioral health support aid is also Black and she’s asked him to start carrying his identification whenever they’re out.

Several city leaders — including Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Managing Director Tumar Alexander — were listening to Rashad and Thompson.

The virtual conversation was the first in the city’s “Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation Community Engagement Series.” City officials moderated the event, which lasted over two hours. The conversation aimed to connect residents and city leaders in the wake of the summer’s racial justice protests and the more recent police killing of Walter Wallace, Jr.

Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart, Director for Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs for the city, described letting people talk about how they’d been affected these past few months as a first step in “imagining together a vision for public safety where all are safe.”

The session called “Circles of Truths” was about being vulnerable and active listening, not necessarily coming up with answers or policies to address public safety concerns, said Washington-Leapheart.

City officials also got a chance to describe how they’ve been processing the year and their own experiences with police.

Mayor Kenney described feeling “shocked, frightened, angry, confused [and] uncertain” as he had to make decisions meant to keep both residents and police safe during unrest.

Still, Kenney described how he grew up with a different view of police. The mayor said that when he was growing up, his family taught him that if he was ever lost or confused in an unknown neighborhood, his best bet was to find a police officer.

“Not a lot of people on this call can say that,” said Kenney, who said the only time he was ever stopped by an officer as a teen or adult was when he was speeding in Maryland.

Philadelphia’s Managing Director Tumar Alexander said the racial justice protests made him feel helpless because while he may be a city official, he’s a Black man first.

“Mayor Kenney talked about having an interaction with police once, but I could talk about having multiple interactions — some good, some not so good,” he said. “But I could tell you that every time I have an interaction, it’s a level of anxiety, and I just think that’s just an anxiety of being a Black man.”

Similarly, Outlaw said while she isn’t a Black man, she has two Black sons who she worries about. But she described being frustrated by the idea she had to choose between being a police officer or parent.

“Someone always wants us to choose one … ‘Are you for the community or are you for the cops?’” she said. “Well it’s not an ‘either/or,’ it’s an ‘and’ … [If] we hold ourselves accountable, then that means we’re providing a better service for the community.”

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But Outlaw described the pressure she felt in addressing a decadeslong mistrust of police, rising violence and other issues the city is facing.

Outlaw said sometimes she’ll say to herself, “What kind of hand is this that I’m being dealt?” and “[No one told me] that one person would be expected to come in and change all of the ills of society … but that’s what they place on us.”

Ajeenah Amir, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement, has said the goal is to start hosting monthly sessions like this one next year.

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