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On The Syllabus For San Diego Students, Police: How To Communicate

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County and school officials hope to expand a pilot program that brought together students and police for conflict resolution training.

A face-to-face with neighborhood high school students could soon be part of the training for San Diego police officers. A pilot program that brought Lincoln High School students together with officers is set to expand.

San Diego's National Conflict Resolution Center recently convened dozens of Lincoln students, parents and police officers from the nearby Southeastern Division for a one-day communication training. They focused on overcoming bias and finding common ground.

Lincoln High senior Shana Williams, 17, said shows of force by police are common in her neighborhood, which is known for gang activity but has relatively low violent crime rates.

"From my family background, I've had plenty of police encounters and they weren't a pretty picture, and I did grow to despise the police because of the way they handle things because of my race and stuff like that," Williams said. "But now from going to this training I actually feel like I give them more respect because I know why they do things now. I know their perspectives."

Williams said facilitators broke attendees up by personality type and she was surprised to learn some officers "were softies" like her – how she described her instinct to step back and consider how she can help people in situations.

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said the training can help prevent escalations that lead to violence and community unrest.

"Every single one of (the officers) now has a greater understanding and sensitivity of the concerns of our community, and we intend to continue to build on this dialogue," Zimmerman said.

One of the organizers, NCRC's Tasha Williamson, said entrenched inequality is still part of the problem, but improving communication paves the way for more substantive policy and social change. Lizbeth Contreras, 16, agreed.

"I feel like it's definitely the first step there — starting with the younger generation because that way we can grow up to see law enforcement in a different perspective," Lizbeth said.

San Diego County Health and Human Services funded the program and plans for it to become regular practice across the school district and police divisions. It would be based in new wellness hubs at local high schools meant to connect families with social services and counseling.

The program comes as the Police Department is poised to graduate its most diverse academy in recent years. And earlier this month the city's public safety committee voted to extend the department's contract with weapons and camera manufacturer Taser to outfit officers with body cameras. Zimmerman rolled out the technology in 2014 to help increase trust in the community.

She said complaints against officers have gone down as a result. But the added layer of accountability has also stymied trust in some cases. Officers have failed to activate their cameras in some high-profile deadly shootings, and Zimmerman has been reluctant to release footage from other incidents.

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