WEST CHESTER, PA — A Chester County Sheriff’s Office initiative with local law enforcement officers and African American teen-ambassadors leads to friendship and training.
Seven months after Chester County youth group Sanji Strong led a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in West Chester, ambassadors from the group honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by attending de-escalation and media resolution training with representatives from the Chester County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) and West Chester Police Department (WCPD).
Bridge-building meetings between the teens and officers that began in the summer and fall of 2020 led to a unanimous vote to learn more together about conflict resolution and to expand their gatherings to include friends later in 2021.
The de-escalation training, held on January 16th, was led by instructors from Philadelphia’s Good Shepherd Mediation Program, and was sponsored by Unionville Presbyterian Church.
At Sanji Strong’s rally last June 27, Chester County Sheriff Fredda Maddox listened to the stories of local teens who had experienced hurtful encounters with law enforcement officers. Moved by their stories and realizing there was an opening to build rapport with youth who were distrustful of police, she offered to meet with them. In a thoughtfully arranged bridge-building gathering among officers from the CCSO and WCPD and ambassadors from Sanji Strong, the teens told their stories. They spoke of feeling terrified when their home was torn apart during a search of the wrong home. They also talked about being protected by an officer when a noose appeared on the desk of one of the students, and seeing cops who went out of their way to simply say hello to kids playing outside. The adults listened deeply and conversation about needed changes began. They forged early friendships.
“To help our community move forward, we decided to learn de-escalation techniques and conflict resolution principles,” said Maddox. “Our goal is to continue and expand the work we’ve done together, so that more people in the county have tools to communicate with respect and respond to conflict without violence.”
Tiffany Perkins, who founded the Sanji Strong youth group after her son Eric “Sanji” Brown was killed in West Chester in 2018, concurs. A driving force behind the training and meetings, Perkins finds hope in the work being done to build bridges “We are changing history in Chester County,” she said. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and my son Eric—‘Sanji’—would be proud.”
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