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The First Step: Program seeks to forge bonds between youth & police

The First Step
The First Step

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Shootings, protests, unrest: there’s no doubt a rift exists between police and some of the communities they serve.

Over the past year, records compiled by The Washington Post show 942 people were killed in police shootings nationwide. The records show Black people were killed at a disproportionate rate, with most of those shot being young males.

Jacksonville has seen 11 police shootings, five of them deadly, in the past year, according to Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office records. All of them are still under review by the 4th Circuit State Attorney’s Office, which oversees Duval County.

But the city’s officers are befriending young men believed to be most at risk. Officers and students volunteered to take part in the program, known as Bridging the Gap, which aims to forge bonds between law enforcement and the community.

It’s no secret that over the past decade high-profile cases of people dying at the hands of police — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Michael Brown — have contributed to the growing tension, sparking protests in cities like Minneapolis, Louisville and St. Louis, as well as across the country.

That tension has instilled fear in American communities and the police agencies tasked with serving and protecting them.

That reality isn’t lost on Jonas Jean-Francois, a young Black man and Jacksonville native who put it in stark terms.

“Most African Americans don’t have a good (rapport) with police officers,” Jean-Francois told News4Jax. “You end up dead or in jail, and those are two places I don’t feel like being at the moment.”

Anthony Laquidara, a patrol officer with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, also has concerns.

“The attack on police officers has been hard,” Laquidara said. “I know the community is not very favorable on us right now.”

JSO patrol officer Anthony Laquidara and an Ed White student listen during one of the "Bridging the Gap" sessions held at the high school. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

So, how do you bring two sets of people with different points of view together?

Bishop John Guns, an anti-violence advocate, thinks he’s found the answer.

“I don’t think it’s just on one side, I think it’s on both,” Guns said. “And when you bridge the gap, you are really creating a connection between two unique parties who are necessary for our communities to be safe and healthy.”

Bridging The Gap, a pilot program at Ed White High School on Jacksonville’s Westside, pairs police officers with some of the area’s most at-risk students. It’s part of Bishop Guns’ “Operation Save Our Sons” program.

Guns brought the idea to Sheriff Mike Williams, who jumped right on board.

“At the end of the day it’s just conversations,” Sheriff Williams said. “It’s their perceptions, it’s the officers’ perceptions and the outcomes are tremendous.”

Ed White High students and Jacksonville Sheriff's officers volunteered to take part in "Bridging the Gap," a program that aims to bring police and youth together. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

The program’s organizers invited News4Jax to watch Saturday sessions as students struck up conversations with officers, and the two sides found common ground.

“We have a lot more in common than I expected,” said Justin Brown, a rising senior at Ed White High.

Brown and Lt. James Parris were hesitant at first, but the pair quickly became friends.

“Oh, we’re gonna be doing a lot of fishing, hunting, ride-alongs, coming to my graduation,” Brown said.

Parris said the two attended church mass together and he met Brown’s family.

It’s more than friendships and goal setting, though. Officers and students go through dangerous scenarios that often lead up to deadly incidents, like traffic stops. Participants went through training and simulations at JSO’s police academy.

Ed White High students and Jacksonville Sheriff's officers volunteered to take part in "Bridging the Gap," a program that aims to bring police and youth together. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Is it genuine?

“All day, this is as genuine and as authentic and as organic as I have ever seen,” Bishop Guns said. “To see young African-American males interacting with law enforcement in such a positive way shows that there is hope here. And then ultimately, if we work together, you’re not gonna stop everything, but you can at least make it a healthier culture.”

Will it save lives?

“Oh there’s no doubt, there’s no doubt in my mind,” the sheriff said.

“When you can put your differences to the side and work together, man it will be way better than what it is now,” Brown said.

“(Officers) risk their lives every day for people they don’t know,” Jean-Francois added. “And they have families, they have children that they have to go home to.”

Who knew something as simple as understanding each other could save lives?

It’s a domino effect. The goal is that participants, police and students alike, share their experiences with family, friends, fellow officers and students.

The latest group of students graduated over the summer and most are keeping up with their officer friends.

Bishop Guns and Sheriff Williams said they hope to have more classes in the future. Eventually, they want to take the program nationwide. Guns said he’s already getting requests for satellite programs across the country.

At the moment, Bridging the Gap is a pilot program only at Ed White High. Students and teachers said they’re looking into making it an elective class at the school. But Bishop Guns and Sheriff Williams hope to expand soon.

In the meantime, Operation Save Our Sons, which oversees Bridging The Gap, has other crime prevention, networking and team-building opportunities available.

Parents and students can learn more at the organization’s website or by calling 904-768-7112 ext. 6077.


About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.