Long Beach Police Officer Jason Lehman is a cop straight out of Central Casting: thick neck, burly shoulders, head shaven clean. Watching him stalk back and forth in front of a movie screen at Maya Cinemas, he reminded me (physically, anyway) of Vic Mackey, the Los Angeles cop-turned-criminal played by Michael Chiklis on the FX series The Shield.
For four hours on Oct. 26, Lehman tried to play to his audience, comprising mostly kids, mostly from East Salinas. He tried to get them to identify with him. As a kid growing up in New York, he told them, he smashed a postal delivery driver in the head with a brick. He went through the juvenile justice system as a 14-year-old, and when he came out on the other side, his mother moved him to California to try to straighten him out.
A kid in the audience asked Lehman what the driver had done that warranted such an attack. “Nothing,” Lehman said.
Lehman was in town as founder of the nonprofit program Why’d You Stop Me (WYSM), which ostensibly seeks to build bridges between law enforcement and community members. In Salinas, those bridges are desperately needed: The murder rate last year reached an all-time high of 40. In 2014, Salinas police officers shot and killed four men, while another died after being stunned with a taser.
The California Board of State and Community Corrections gave the Salinas Police Department and the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office an $850,000 grant to fund the program, with some of that money trickling down to local nonprofits Partners for Peace and Sun Street Centers for outreach. WYSM plans to present to 1,200 residents, and hundreds of law enforcement officers, in Monterey County.
While Lehman delivered his presentation inside the Maya, Building Healthy Communities-East Salinas protested outside. They were there to deliver an overriding point: that Lehman’s message – do what the police tell you and you won’t get hurt – is unacceptable.
BHC contends Why’d You Stop Me does little to repair relations with the community, which a report from the U.S. Department of Justice described as “significantly frayed.” That report, released in March, said the Salinas PD didn’t fully appreciate the disconnect.
“The DOJ came out with its report and it looked like the city would take it seriously, so when they contracted with Why’d You Stop Me, it was the complete opposite of what should happen,” says BHC-East Salinas spokesperson Jesus Valenzuela. “It was intended to build community trust, yet it focuses on community compliance.”
While Valenzuela, other BHC officials and community activists protested outside, a number of youth gathered by BHC attended the presentation. At one point, Lehman pulled a fake weapon and pointed it at one of those kids, as a means of educating the audience of what an officer goes through when confronting a possibly armed suspect.
Given the community’s fractured relationship with the police, it seemed a serious tactical error.
BHC-East Salinas Policy Director Cesar Lara sent a letter to City Manager Ray Corpuz and Community Alliance For Safety and Peace Director Jose Arreola outlining a number of complaints about WYSM. Among them: The grant application used the names of two BHC partners without their permission; an earlier WYSM presentation said a goal was to teach youth “how to respect authority”; Lehman posited that instead of worrying about changing police policies, the community should worry about cooperation.
Corpuz, Arreola and Assistant City Manager Jim Pia met with BHC representatives Oct. 28. Valenzuela says the city seemed unnerved at the strong reaction against WYSM, but made it clear they don’t want to terminate the contract. City officials told BHC they want to make the program better. BHC agreed to collaborate “to see if it’s even possible,” Valenzuela says.
“We had 50 people go through the training, a majority of those were young people and they’re realizing they have a say, and the right to tell the city what kind of policing they want,” he says. “It means we’re getting more youth involved in organizing, learning to change the culture before they’re adults.”