Sarah Guzman, right, a 10th grader at Jordan High School, approaches Why’d You Stop Me founder Jason Lehman for a low-five before receiving a $1,000 scholarship for sharing how she sees Long Beach through an illustration. Photos by Brittany Woolsey
You pull your car to the right and keep your hands on the wheel as the red and blue lights flash behind you. You get out when he tells you to. You place your hands on the hood, or he binds them with his own—not too tightly, but just enough to make sure they’re secure. He scans you up and down. He checks for anything that might be out of the ordinary. He observes your demeanor. Are you fidgeting? Are you fighting his grip or his command? Has he singled you out just to be cruel? You’re a good person. What is he thinking?
And then you ask:
“Why’d you stop me?”
And that’s exactly what Jason Lehman says he wants you to ask. And, he says, he wants you to know why an officer performs certain actions, and he wants to better understand you, a member of the community he has sworn to protect and serve.
A police officer with the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) for nearly a decade, Lehman created a program called “Why’d You Stop Me” (WYSM) four years ago when officers were being threatened frequently by community members.
“We met with a group of students who were the type that we thought were encompassing those threats, and we learned that officers and community members share a struggle with power and with fear,” Lehman said. “Through that struggle, it was impressive because we realized we share something. I figured out if we share one thing, why can’t we share a thousand?”
WYSM is an 11-part multimedia presentation where officers not only speak and facilitate, but also conduct training so program participants can see what it feels like to be a police officer and experience what they do. It focuses on three Long Beach groups: inner-city youth, adult criminal justice students and previously incarcerated individuals.
“Through WYSM, we’re able to build public trust in policing and trust in the communities,” Lehman said.
The program successfully became a nonprofit last year and is the first officer-led nonprofit to be endorsed by the LBPD.
Lehman said one of the goals of WYSM is to help police officers and community members understand each other more and better comprehend why certain actions are performed. He said WYSM’s motto is “Event + Reaction = Outcome.”
Why are your hands bound? Lehman says it’s for your protection and the officer’s protection.
Why are you being scanned? He’s looking for anything that may tell him you’re hiding something, like drugs or worse, a weapon. This is for his safety, as well as yours.
Does he think you’re a bad person? Not necessarily, but he has to remain cautious with everyone he meets.
Lehman and the rest of the police officers, for the most part, are not bad guys, he says. They’re just doing their jobs. They’re here to protect the citizens.
These are ideas that the community needs to understand, Lehman said. The police aren’t out to hurt the citizens, but instead protect them.
And while not everyone—citizens and police included—in the world is good, most are, said LBPD Deputy Chief David Hendricks at a WYSM ceremony on Thursday night at the Scottish Rite Event Center.
“There are evil people in this world, but we as police have to realize how little that number is,” he said.
Through WYSM, Lehman has introduced these ideas to inner-city Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) students and has, at the same time, shaped their lives.
Jasmine Simpson, a 19-year-old former WYSM participant, said the program gave her a different impression of cops. In a poem delivered at Thursday’s ceremony, Simpson explained how she used to hate the police for some of their actions, but now, as she understands them more, she wants to be like them.
“Once I started getting involved, I started to make better choices,” she said. “I started to think, ‘Maybe the program wouldn’t like it if I did this,’ and I started double-checking myself. I’m back into school, I want to be a nurse and Jason is always there for me when I need someone to talk to. I used to be a troublemaker. I would always ditch class and get kicked out. I was just rebellious, but once I started hanging out with Jason, he helped me get back into school. Because of him, I’ve made a lot of better decisions for myself.”
Simpson is not the only student WYSM has helped. In 2014 alone, WYSM presented to 1,000 community members and police officers alike. And in the time since WYSM was started, officer-involved shootings have gone down by 50 percent. Lehman said he believes this is in part because of a better level of understanding between police officers and the community they serve.
As part of the program, WYSM offers two annual $1,000 scholarships for LBUSD students to honor the late Claudette Powers, who helped Lehman spread messages of peace to students before she passed in November 2013.
Lehman said one quote from Powers stood out: “I see greatness in you. There will be a day when there are zero homicides in Long Beach.”
“With education, we’re able to create more peaceful environments,” Lehman said. “The more ignorance toward a subject, the more fear and the more chance of violence. We’re trying to spread the peaceful message by giving these kids some amazing scholarships.”
For this year’s scholarships, students were asked to create an art piece of any medium representing Long Beach “through their lens.”
After a selection by Powers’ family and a WYSM committee, Sarah Guzman, a ninth-grader from Jordan High School, and Andrea Hernandez, a 10th-grader from Ernest McBride High School, were each selected for $1,000 scholarships at Thursday’s ceremony.
With tears in her eyes, a choked up Guzman said she couldn’t express how much the recognition meant to her.
“I’ve lived in a lot of messed up areas, and I think because of the situations I’ve been through, it’s made me want to be a better person,” she said with Lehman next to her for support. “It makes me want to do bigger stuff. In every neighborhood that I’ve lived in, I’ve always had a view of buildings from afar. I always thought, ‘Those are the big people. They’re the strong people. They’re the wealthy.’ And I wanted to be one of those people, but as a child and up until now, I thought I wasn’t good enough because of where I come from and who I am because of my race or gender, but now I think everyone has something to add to this world.”
And, likewise, Hernandez also said WYSM helped her views of police officers change, so much so that she decided to join the Long Beach Police Explorer Program.
“Police have a very tough job,” she said. “A lot of people get killed. I know a couple police officers that I wouldn’t want them to die at all because they make a big impact on the city. I look back on my history and I see all these programs that make me into a better person — not that I was never a good person before; I was always a good person — but these groups make me more confident.”
Lehman said he was proud of both Guzman and Hernandez, and that they were deserving to win.
“They’re both amazing,” Lehman said. “I heard Andrea speak for the first time at the big brother/big sister event, where she personally raised about $26,000 within three minutes of speaking. It was absolutely the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. She just an amazing lady. Sarah is an awesome, awesome student from Jordan, a true inner-city high school. She has an absolutely amazing art piece and was part of the Female Academy. … I’ll be honest with you, I’m not good at much, but I feel like someone up there gave me a power to spread this message in Long Beach. We hope this spreads from Long Beach and beyond to a national level.”
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