NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Across the world, there was expressions of disgust over widespread discrimination and bias. Protests galvanized by the disturbing video of police officers pinning down George Floyd, killing him. They called for change and in some cases, civil unrest followed.
“People have solutions. There’s ‘Black Lives Matter’, defund the police, but those solutions aren’t very effective,” says Peter Scharf, Ph.D.
Locally, an organization called, ‘Peek Insight’ works to bring about change, but in a different way.
“You can never allow an external factor to control your internal factor. You are in control,” says Ameer Baraka.
Their form of change comes not from protests or speeches, but from a classroom. Since 2017, actor Ameer Baraka and LSU Health Criminologist Dr. Peter Scharf worked together to end what they believe is an unconscious bias in the community.
“It’s not just racial bias. It’s gender bias. It’s age bias, where people have a bias against people who are older, people who are younger, so it’s a huge problem that we’re facing,” says Baraka.
“We don’t know how to talk to strangers. We may not even be of the same community now. Society is so fragmented, and there’s so much hostility across these divides, gender, race and ethnicity,” says Scharf, Ph.D.
Even before George Floyd’s death, they say the problems of bias especially among police officers sparked a nerve in communities across the country and right here in the New Orleans area.
Baraka and Scharf wanted to reach law enforcement, and the Gretna Police Department was the first to sign up.
“So, I want to test you to see what’s in you because every day, we’re pouring out what’s in us,” says Baraka.
During training sessions, there’s a very open and raw conversation about the unconscious bias. Baraka likes to role play to show officers how they react to different types of people, and he says there’s some in your face moments with police officers.
“I get very aggressive throughout the training, and I get in officers face because we talk about emotional intelligence. It’s incumbent on the officer to be in control of his or her emotions because you have people out there saying a lot of things and you have to confront these people and not the violence, and take it,” says Baraka.
They say the idea is not to change policy but to change behaviors.
“We really try to develop an awareness of ways that you can be misunderstood,” says Scharf, Ph.D.
Scharf says being misunderstood can turn into an explosive situation.
“How does a police officer work with a mentally ill person or a person with a different ethnic background and be aware of the perceptions that people will have or how they handle the incident, especially with a layer of race,” says Scharf, Ph.D.
“We are trying to do better to equip officers and get them to understand if you do have a bias, here’s how you deal with that bias. Share with our co-workers and try to get some help,” says Baraka.
Their training sessions gained in popularity, sparking the interest of other police departments including the NOPD.
“For the most part, everyone has been very receptive. This is something good. This is something engaging and we have the opportunity to say what we are doing or how we look at ourselves differently outside of being law enforcement,” says Ferguson.
The NOPD is now considering the training.
In the meantime, ‘Peek Insight’ gained a team of instructors, leading an open conversation for everyone to express their true feelings. The training peeked the interest of Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant.
“I was always intrigued by the messages, and I always felt they were so appropriate and necessary for the police department, and I thought if it’s been such a success for them, then why can’t all employees experience that class,” says Constant.
Every Gretna City worker is now trained in conscious and unconscious bias.
“At the end of the day, you may not be best friends with the people in class, but you would have learned how important it is professionally to understand differences in the world,” says Constant.
Mayor Constant says, like police, her city workers interact with the public as well.
“How you behave is a reflection on the entire city. The public will draw opinions on the city of Gretna based on the actions of you,” says Constant.
They’re hoping the program eventually gains national attention, but now they say it’s about helping people change their behaviors and become more aware of how they treat others.
“I like helping people. I don’t judge people. I don’t judge anyone. This program does not judge anyone. You judge yourself,” says Baraka.
Copyright 2020 WVUE. All rights reserved.