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Nonprofit educational program strives to reduce acts of violence between police and community members

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Sean Belk:
Staff Writer

Long Beach Police Officer Jason Lehman is the executive director and founder of “Why'd You Stop Me?

Long Beach Police Officer Jason Lehman is the executive director and founder of “Why’d You Stop Me?” (WYSM). The nonprofit founded in 2011 conducts educational sessions to open communication lines between the community and police.

About four years ago, Long Beach Police Officer Jason Lehman spoke to a group of Poly High School students in an effort to create a bond between police and the community. At the time, the presentation was a strategy to reach out to at-risk youth when it was rumored that gang members were plotting to kill police officers.
That conversation, however, quickly morphed into an educational program that today he hopes will continue to reduce acts of violence between police and the community by tackling an ongoing and often complex power struggle.

“If we eliminate fear, we would eliminate violence in every aspect of this world,” said Lehman, 33, in an interview with the Signal Tribune. “Fear, most of the time, comes from the unknown. So we want to create more transparency.”

After that first school presentation, Lehman was compelled in 2011 to develop an educational program, which today operates as a nonprofit called “Why’d You Stop Me” (WYSM). The program is based on an equation: E+R=O, which means that “events” occur in life and how people choose to “react” to those events determines the “outcome.” The goal, he said, is to react “positively” to events in order to have a “positive” outcome.
The nonprofit has put this equation on wristbands that have been handed out to community members. Lehman said even some Long Beach police officers are proudly wearing the wristbands on duty to show support of the program and build trust.

“If we promise as law enforcement and promise as a community to react positively to every event, we’ll always have a positive outcome,” he said. “It’s so simple to the point that if we made that promise every time, we would eliminate acts of violence between police officers and community members.”

Lehman, who worked for seven years in the Long Beach Police Department’s gang and violent-crime suppression team, today has a busy schedule, working at night and in the morning hours as a police officer during the graveyard shift. During the day, he speaks to community members as the founder and executive director of WYSM, which has won awards for its sessions on bridging the gap between police and community members.
The sessions include an 11-part educational program that he said strives to describe to the community the struggles with “power and fear” that police officers deal with on a daily basis, first admitting that, although minimal, sometimes police misconduct does occur.

Courtesy WYSM Long Beach Police Officer Jason Lehman, second from left, conducts an educational session as part of his nonprofit “Why'd You Stop Me?

Courtesy WYSM
Long Beach Police Officer Jason Lehman, second from left, conducts an educational session as part of his nonprofit “Why’d You Stop Me?” (WYSM). The nonprofit aims to reduce incidents of violence between police and community members through an 11-part educational program.

“Some police officers would have a problem with [admitting] that,” Lehman said in the office of his nonprofit located in downtown Long Beach. “We are a flawed business just like any business. Just because we’re held to a higher standard, doesn’t mean we don’t have that 1 percent of police officers that are out there doing the wrong thing.”

The program, which has recently been honored by the Anti-Defamation League and recognized by the California Conference for Equality and Justice for gang-prevention efforts, also covers such topics as racial profiling and society’s perceptions of law enforcement, he said, adding that many participants have changed their attitudes about police officers after attending the educational session.

“If they felt like they were being stopped because of a particular race, such as being black, by the end of our training, oftentimes, they’ve realized that they weren’t stopped for being black, they were stopped in a neighborhood that’s 80 percent black,” Lehman said.

In one instance, Jasmine Simpson, who was a 16-year-old student at the time, attended a session at Wilson High School, and was touched so much by the presentation that she wrote a poem titled “I Used To Hate You.”
The poem describes how she once “despised” the police for taking her family away, however it ends by stating, “Now I wanna be like you.”

Since Simpson attended the session, she got back on track with school after having frequent truancies and has a new respect for police officers, Lehman said, adding that the student admitted to having drug and alcohol-abuse problems at a young age and being a sexual-abuse survivor.

The educational sessions also include scenario-based training in which participants are able to step into the shoes of a police officer and act out duties, such as pedestrian and traffic stops, engaging in an officer-involved shooting, or listening to police dispatches and then deciding what to do in those situations, he said.

The sessions aren’t just limited to educating community members. WYSM also works to “retrain” police officers about struggles community members are going through as well.

“As much as I feel like I know, as a police officer, what I’m doing, do I really know what the community is going through?” Lehman asked. “I would like to say I do, but I think that retraining is important.”
He pointed out that it’s important to understand that there are reasons why some individuals may have a negative perception of law enforcement and starting the conversation helps to break down those barriers.
Throughout the years, the program has also included community members, some who are ex-convicts and drug addicts, to share stories and deter youth from making bad decisions.

Lehman said he hopes that WYSM, which this year launched a program to offer “Power for Power” scholarship awards, will spread to cities across the country, adding that the nonprofit has plans to make presentations in Utah, Arizona and Pennsylvania.

“We hope that his message could spread to everybody so that we can really get this point across and get it done,” Lehman said. “This program is really effective and saves lives.”
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Serving Bixby Knolls, California Heights, Los Cerritos, Wrigley and Signal Hill
Nonprofit educational program strives to reduce acts of violence between police and community members