Reflections on the Affinity Project

Is it possible to establish meaningful bonds between law enforcement and the community?
In December 2017, we explored a partnership with the Illumination Project, a group of police, business, and community leaders who are featured in the Museum’s permanent exhibit “To Serve and Protect.” The exhibit highlights what took place in Charleston, South Carolina, following the tragedy that occurred at Mother Emanuel Church. Police and citizens came together to forge an initiative that would forever change the city of Charleston. The challenge of building meaningful relationships between police and citizens is a question that former Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen often considered:
“What can I do as the police chief in Charleston to avoid the conflict, destruction, and violence I have witnessed all across our Country as a result of the deteriorating relationships between citizens and their police departments?”
Chief Mullen’s answer came on June 17, 2015. During the evening hours, a white male entered the most historic black church in Charleston, retrieved a Glock .45 pistol from a fanny pack, and killed nine people. Following the tragedy, citizens and police came together in the spirit of grace, forgiveness, and unity to form The Illumination Project (IP). This unifying initiative included 33 listening sessions, 858 citizens, 40 officers, plus command staff, and combined 2,226 action ideas. Considering the success of the Charleston Illumination Project, and other community policing initiatives reflected in the Museum’s Five Communities exhibition, and the Museum’s main film in the Verizon Theater, the efforts to strengthen relationships between police and citizens were not merely hypotheses, but a praxis that has been embraced by citizens and police throughout the country.

In January 2018, I invited the Illumination Project team to our main offices in Washington, DC, to present their model of engagement. After providing a historical overview of the Charleston Illumination Project, the IP team engaged Museum and Memorial staff in a series of discussions using Polarity Thinking. Polarity Thinking uses a dualistic framework to assess the value of opposing perspectives while identifying a common goal or greater purpose. The greater purpose that is reached ensures that both sides (police and citizens) recognize the positive value of both perspectives, and the mutual benefit they have for all participants.
From January to May 2018, the Museum’s education team met with IP weekly through phone conversations and online meetings to design a program inspired by IP, but one that was unique to the Museum’s exhibits and collection. We called it the Affinity Project.
The Affinity Project resulted in a two-day workshop that involved 25 police officers and command staff and 25 community leaders. In order to ensure an effective roll-out of what we developed, we set out to pilot the program in June. We established a partnership with Chief Henry Stawinski and Prince George’s County Police Department.
While still in the throes of preparing for the Museum’s grand opening in October of 2018, we successfully completed our first pilot program and the results were hugely satisfying. Using polarity thinking as a foundation for building conversations, we included a component called “The Museum Experience,” which examined different perspectives through an examination of objects in our exhibits and multi-sensory, participatory experiences that integrated thinking skills with auditory, visual, and kinesthetic forms of engagement. For example, some exercises included discussions with citizens and police about a police shield and a police brutality protest sign – both of which are featured in the Museum’s History Time Capsules exhibit. Both objects embodied polarizing aspects. Yet, both objects served as a nexus for understanding the underlying values that both groups shared (e.g. public safety). The polarity framework also undergirded our discussions about videos depicting routine police encounters with citizens (taken from the Day in the Life exhibit) and role-playing exercises in which police and citizens traded roles while taking us through a domestic violence incident. The “Museum Experience” was followed by planning sessions that discussed next steps for continuing the dialogue between police and citizens in Prince George’s County and how to expand this initial session to include broader segments of the community.
As a pilot, we were very fortunate to work with Prince George’s County Police Chief Henry Stawinski, his command staff, and officers, as well as the community leaders, who represented a diverse cross-section of residents in Prince George’s County. We were particularly fortunate to partner with Kris Marsh, Sociology Professor at the University of Maryland who has conducted implicit bias training in coordination with the department. The planning sessions culminated in a public event called the Unity Project held on November 3rd at the Community of Hope Church, which was arranged with the assistance of Reverend Tony Lee.
As you can imagine, the pilot phase of the Affinity Project was immensely rewarding. Our partnership with Prince George’s County police and citizens gave us direct, hands-on experience in determining just how effective a concept like community policing could be when spearheaded by the National Law Enforcement Museum.
From our follow-up discussions with Chief Stawinski and his command staff, we concluded that more work was needed to include a broader segment of the community. This realization led us to reevaluate the program to include a research phase. We decided that historical research and direct interactions with community representatives and police in advance were necessary to ensure that we are inclusive and more prepared in terms of understanding the community’s needs.
Overall, the Affinity Project pilot program provided us with a unique opportunity to connect with police and community leaders in a meaningful way. Now that the museum is open, our engagement with the public has greatly expanded to include interactive exhibits, school tours and workshops, panel discussions in the new Verizon signature theater, family programs like Science Saturdays and Family Fun Day, and interactive experiences in the Museum’s training simulator. The fundamental goal moving forward will be to get more and more people in the door because once they are inside, great things can happen.