‘Game Changer’ aims to improve community-police relations

by Will Fritz, Senior Staff Writer

KPBS hosted “Game Changer,” a focus group discussion between police officers and community members, for the third time on Wednesday Feb. 22.

Police officers and community members of all ages met in a room at the KPBS office and spent about three hours engaging in conversations about interactions with law enforcement.

The focus group began with participants being asked to form pairs and find five things in common with one another.

Participants were then asked to respond to prompts about topics such as common misconceptions about officers and the community, as well as racial profiling.

“Say whatever you want,” Sean Sheppard, “Game Changer” founder, said to participants. “We want you to say whatever you want, as long as we’re being respectful to one another.”

“Game Changer” is the idea of Sean Sheppard, an SDSU alumnus and the founder of the San Diego-area non-profit Embrace.

Sheppard said the purpose of “Game Changer” is “to bring people together from all different walks of life.”

“We’re here to spend some time together, talk about some serious issues in the community as it relates to law enforcement and people within the community,” he said. “This is a safe space, and as long as we’re respectful of one another, we encourage you to say whatever you want.”

Sheppard said he drew on his own experiences as a former athlete and a life coach while coming up with the “Game Changer.”

“I know a big part of the problem when it comes to community members not getting along and the community not getting along with law enforcement is just due to a lack of personal exposure,” he said.

Sheppard said his goal is to eventually have as many “Game Changer” events as there are sporting events in San Diego.

“For the Padres, for example, they may have 15 games in the month of June at Petco park, and we would like to do “Game Changer” events at all 15 of those games,” he said.

Sheppard said he is working on developing partnerships with the Padres and other sports teams in San Diego, as the sports franchises provide tickets to “Game Changer” participants.

During Wednesday night’s discussion, a participant shared his experience of differing treatment by police officers depending on whether he was in Southeast San Diego or La Jolla.

At another, a police officer asked a participant if she believed police should have any discretion in making traffic stops at all after the participant questioned why some demographics are stopped at higher rates than others.

In addition to conversing with one another, participants were asked to fill out two survey forms, one before and one after taking part in the event.

Data from these surveys are analyzed by CSU Fullerton to examine effects on participants’ views.

However, Sheppard said 100 survey participants are needed to begin to draw conclusions.

Since the first “Game Changer” took place in December, there have been a total of about 60 participants, he said.

So far, participants have had little negative to say about the experience.

San Diego Police Sgt. Marc Stephens said the event was very informative, and allowed community members and officers to share their insights into normal, day-to-day police contacts.

“But I think probably the biggest takeaway is the fact that officer and citizens were able to see how much they were alike with each other and how they could relate on common ground and basically to create a better society for all of us,” he said

Compared to community meetings he has attended in the past, Stephens said “Game Changer” allowed for more open dialogue between police and civilians.

SDSU Chief Diversity Officer Aaron Bruce said the event is “an excellent step” toward bridging the gap between police and the community.

Bruce said “Game Changer” has not only significantly changed his perception of police officers, but has also opened his eyes to the many different kinds of people who have had challenging encounters with police, regardless of their identity or their socioeconomic background.

“For a long time, I’ve been afraid of police because of the media’s portrayal of police and how they engage African-American males,” Bruce said. “But I think by interacting with police officers more and learning more about their lifestyle, it’s helped me to become a lot more understanding of the diversity within the police department and I think that it’s changed my perceptions of the work they do, which has helped lessen my fear of police.”

Political science sophomore Thomas Hintza called it “a nice meeting,” although he did say he had a few personal qualms he would like to see addressed.

“I understand what they are trying to do but there were, I believe, only three SDSU students in attendance,” he said.

Hintza also said he wished there were time to explore topics more deeply, and would have preferred more “intellectual presence.”

“I’m not disregarding what everyone else has to offer, but no sociologists were here, no one who analyzes this and discusses this for a living was here,” Hintza said.“I believe more knowledge doesn’t hurt the discourse. It adds to it and makes it actually productive. Because if you have a conversation that’s not fact-based, what’s the point of it.”

Hintza said while “Game Changer” didn’t do much to alter his personal beliefs, he said it helped him to better understand the perspectives of others.

“I’d definitely love to do it again,” he said.

At the end of the focus group, participants headed to Viejas Arena to watch the Wednesday SDSU men’s basketball game against Fresno State together.

The next “Game Changer” event is scheduled for March 1, the day the SDSU men’s basketball team takes on the Air Force Falcons.