Following protests over the death of George Floyd, a Cal State Fullerton student video project titled “Bridging the Gap” aims to humanize and give voice to the perspectives of both law enforcement and community members in Southern California regarding police and community relations.
Professor of Criminal Justice Christine Gardiner assigned the project to students in her “Policing the City” class last fall. The 38 participants who were interviewed include Southern California community members and officers within the CSUF Police Department, UC Irvine Police Department, Placentia Police Department, Irvine Police Department, Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Upland Police Department and Santa Ana Police Department.
The prerecorded messages were addressed to either law enforcement or community members and began with the words “Dear Officer” or “Dear Community Member.” Participants shared both positive and negative personal experiences with police and community interactions.
In one part of the video, a community member named Kona described his experience encountering a law enforcement officer as a person of color.
“The first time I interacted with a police officer, I felt like my life was in danger,” Kona said. “The cop wasn’t very friendly to begin with, and I was too afraid to even look toward the cop. I feel like this is something that needs to change.”
Another community member, Sona, thanked law enforcement officers for their service to their communities.
“I think people forget that police officers are a part of the community,” Sona said. “It shouldn’t be us vs. police officers. If there is a problem, we should be working together to fix this.”
The officers who were featured emphasized how they share many traits with their communities, such as love for their families, concern for their neighbors and the desire to be seen as human beings.
Officer Phou of the UC Irvine Police Department said he would like the public to see him as an officer who understands the oath he took to protect his community.
“I want you to see an officer that would sacrifice his life so that you can go home to your family every single night,” Phou said. “I want you to see an officer with a good heart that will attempt to prove it every day through his actions.”
Officer Pratt of the Santa Ana Police Department said his 8-year-old son and wife are the reasons he puts on his vest and uniform every day.
“When you see me, I want you to see a person and not the badge,” Pratt said. “When you see me, I want you to see an individual and not just an organization.”
Gardiner said that when she saw the video, she was impressed with how genuine and heartfelt the responses were from both sides.
“I was especially struck by the community members sharing their feelings of genuine fear of the police,” Gardiner said. “I thought that was very powerful.”
Gardiner said she would love to see the video spark conversations in communities across California and the nation.
“There is a legitimate lack of public trust in police that needs to be addressed and rectified,” Gardiner said. “Yet, there are also many police officers who are not part of the problem but feel like they have been villainized for the actions of others in their profession.”
Elsi Villa, a criminal justice major who participated in the project as a senior, said she hopes “Bridging the Gap” will help communities and law enforcement agencies begin a dialogue and find ways to trust one another.
“I learned from being part of this video with my classmates and from listening to what the officers and community members had to say that both sides want to be able to put down the wall that has been put up due to what has been going on in different communities,” Villa said. “It will take some time, but I believe that the relationship between law enforcement and the community will get better. At the end of the day, officers are just like everyone else. They are also part of a community.”
Michael Munsell, a senior majoring in criminal justice, said the project helped him better understand the perspectives of police officers and the communities they serve.
“From what I’ve observed, they both want to promote restoration and growth,” Munsell said. “This project was an eye-opening experience and I hope that it can be the first step in the right direction.”
Nathaniel Bonifay, a student majoring in criminal justice, edited the video. The Irvine Police Department prepared and uploaded a professional version of the video for public viewing.