Q&A: How one Calif. officer is breaking barriers with the youth
Officer Ryan Tillman is repairing the bond between law enforcement and the community through his organization, Breaking Barriers United
By PoliceOne Staff
One of the most monumental tasks for modern police agencies is repairing the strained relationships they have with the communities they serve. For Officer Ryan Tillman, the key to a creating a better future lies in the youth.
Tillman joined the Chino Police Department in California in 2013 and served as a patrol officer before recently becoming a school resource officer. He’s also the leader of Breaking Barriers United, which is designed to repair the bond between law enforcement and the youth through workshops and other programs.
We spoke with Tillman ahead of Breaking Barriers United’s first #ITSNEEDED conference – of which Lexipol’s Gordon Graham is a featured speaker – about how he approaches policing and connects with the community. Sign up for the conference, which takes place August 1 in California, here.
PoliceOne: What were your interactions with police when you were a kid and how did you end up in law enforcement?
Ryan Tillman: Growing up, the only interaction I had with officers was negative. Once I had some officers pull up next to me and start cussing me out for being on the phone. There was another occasion where I was driving through a nice neighborhood and a guy claimed to be a deputy and said I looked suspicious and that I needed to leave, or he would call his friends to come arrest me. So, I really only had a negative view of police officers.
After college, I was working retail and knew I needed to make a change. A family friend suggested I look into law enforcement. My mentality was, “I'm not about to be working for the man, I'm not about to be a pig.” That mentality was all based on my interactions I had when I was younger, coupled with all the bad publicity we see on TV about cops. But I prayed about the situation because I'm a very spiritual guy. I said, “God, if this is what you want me to do, then open the door; if not, close the door.” I put my applications out to a few agencies, and I got picked up by Chino PD. I went to the academy and graduated number two overall in my class. These were signs, but I still didn't know if I wanted to be a cop at that point.
P1: How did you get over those moments of doubt and really come to embrace the job?
Tillman: When I started on patrol, I realized a lot of my negative perceptions of law enforcement were based on false information. I started to see why police officers do what they do, that there's a reason why we exist. I also realized I can do the job the way Ryan wants to do it, within the confines of the law obviously. I didn't have to be a stereotypical hard-nosed cop.
This was right around the time Ferguson happened. My friends and some of my family didn't like that I was a cop, but I remember thinking they just needed to understand why we do what we do. So, I had a conversation with my mom. She asked herself what I would have done had I been in that Ferguson officer's shoes, and she concluded I would have done the same exact thing. Then she said, “And I know that my son is a loving husband, a loving son, a loving dad to his kids.” That conversation really made me realize that a lot of the negative perception people have of law enforcement is based on what they see on TV as opposed to real life. That was the start of Breaking Barriers United.
P1: What is your organization's mission?
Tillman: To bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community. Going back to the conversation I had with my mother, I realized that when my mom changed her perspective on law enforcement, that only happened because her son is a police officer. Had I not been her son, she wouldn't have understood. So, I knew early on that I had to humanize myself. I needed to allow people to see “Ryan” instead of “Police Officer Ryan.”
I created a presentation called the "Initiative Workshop" where I tell my story about who I am and where I come from. I show audience members photos of me, my family members, what I look like when I'm not working, the whole nine yards. Then I talk about why I became a police officer, my bad interactions with officers when I was young. I ask the audience if they've ever had a bad experience with cops and most of the audience always raises their hands, and we discuss it. Then I talk about the training that I receive, why we do the training we do and that's really to debunk a lot of the myths about cops, because there are so many myths out there.
There is so much more to life then this weekends party or getting “turnt”. Sometimes it is hard for the youth to understand how their choices create their future. I try to be as transparent as I can with my students to show them the reality of what alcohol and drugs can do to your life.Posted by Breaking Barriers United on Thursday, May 9, 2019
Then I bring up some audience members on stage and we do police scenarios – I'm the bad guy and they must overcome whatever resistance I’m giving them. I take them through a domestic violence scenario, a traffic stop scenario, a 5150 scenario. I research real-life situations where officers have been killed or hurt and I use those scenarios on stage. Of course, everybody fails miserably every time. Once we finish the scenarios, we debrief. Then people start to see law enforcement differently. I'm able to communicate in a way they understand, with transparency and honesty, which is key. The only way we’re going to be able to bridge the gap is through transparency.
P1: What are the main causes of these barriers between police officers and their communities?
Tillman: Number one is the history of law enforcement in this country. We're not that far removed from the civil rights movement, where you had officers enforcing racist types of behavior. That history creates a barrier.
Then you have the barrier of the badge. People forget that behind the badge, we're humans. There's a video I did awhile back where I was dancing on campus and it went viral. I had officers saying, “No, that's not what we should be doing. We shouldn't be dancing on campus.” The thing they fail to realize is that I wasn’t dancing to appease the kids. I wasn’t dancing because my boss told me to. I was dancing because Ryan likes to dance. Ryan just so happens to be a police officer and while I was dancing, I was in my uniform. So even officers forget that you're still a human behind that badge. That's a barrier.
Then you have the barrier – obviously the big one – of media. When big media puts out their take on an officer-involved shooting or whatever it may be, you only get one side of it. That's a big thing I talk about in my presentation, that there are more sides to the story.
Then you have personal interactions with law enforcement, whether direct or indirect. People have these negative interactions sometimes with law enforcement and that creates barriers.
P1: What makes your workshops effective? What's the secret sauce to engaging the youth?
Tillman: Being open and transparent and honest. Don’t talk above people, talk on their level. I think that helps them sense my genuine desire to help them change the way they see policing.
P1: What made you want to target the youth in particular?
Tillman: I started with adults, but then somebody asked me to do a presentation to some high school kids and they really bought into it. When I realized it was really impacting them, it reminded me of a quote by Frederick Douglass: “It's easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” If we can start fixing the mindset of our children, then when they become adults, they can make wiser decisions.
P1: What feedback have you received from students?
Tillman: I had a student tell me he didn't like police officers and when I asked him why, he said, “You guys killed my aunt.” So, I talked to him about it. Later, I did some research to see if this kid was even telling me the truth. And sure enough, three or four months prior to my presentation, deputies had shot his aunt. It was a justified shooting, but all the teenager saw was that cops killed his aunt, no one explained to him why it happened. He messaged me the night after the presentation and said that he now understood why we do what we do. He said, “I may not understand everything that went into my aunt's situation, but you have inspired me to become a police officer and be mentored by you.” That was so impactful to me.
P1: How do you handle negativity or pushback when you're presenting to students?
Tillman: I don't like to call it negativity, I call it realness. What I mean by that is people ask real questions to me. I have real dialogues with people. That builds trust because I’m not painting myself as being a perfect person. I share my bad experiences I’ve had as a police officer. I share negative experiences I’ve had with police officers. That develops trust.
When I started this organization, I refused to let it be just another dog and pony show to combat the issues that are going on. For example, on my Instagram page I sometimes post videos of officers who have done bad things. Real cases, real things that have happened. And I've seen people from the community say, “I appreciate you because you're not afraid to call out those bad ones.” For so long law enforcement has had the reputation that we don't call out bad officers. And that's something that we need to fix to build credibility because we cannot sit here and say that a hundred percent of us are good.
P1: What role do parents have in this? How do you work with them?
Tillman: I put the parents through the same workshops that I do for the kids because the information is just as pertinent for them. That way they know what their kids are receiving in school and it also helps them have a better understanding of police officers as well.
The parents' role is pivotal because I only have a small window of time to try to impact a student's life. The reality is when that student leaves my school or leaves my office, he has to go home to a parent. And if that parent is sending the kid mixed messages, which often is the case, then the message I've given that kid might not get through.
I recently did a podcast about this where I talked about how there are more people that buy into negativity because it's popular as opposed to buying into it because they think something is actually wrong. There are so many people that jump on the bandwagon that police officers are racist, but they don't know why they think police officers are racist, they don't know why they don't like police officers. They just think it because it's the popular thing to do. A lot of parents are on that same bandwagon. That's why it's so important for me to not only share my message with the kids but with the parents.
P1: How can police officers and agencies better connect with the youth in their community?
Tillman: You have to realize that not every single person in the community has had a positive interaction with police. Realize that some people in our community have had more negative interactions than they've had positive interactions. Once you acknowledge and empathize, then you have to be able to embrace where we're going as a profession. Police officers get so ingrained with tradition and old ways that it's difficult to move forward. We have to be able to embrace new ways of doing things.
P1: What recommendations do you have for agencies looking to implement a program like yours in their jurisdictions?
Tillman: Agencies need to pick the brains of their new officers as there are a lot of good things they bring to the table. When they're new is the time you're going to get their best ideas. When I started Breaking Barriers United, I had one year on the job. Often, you're going to get your best ideas when somebody is new because that's when their thinking is fresh, and they still have an outsider perspective.
A program like Breaking Barriers United is important because it’s proactive. Unfortunately, what happens in a lot of agencies is we are reactive as opposed to being proactive. You start reaching out only after something bad happens in your city. When you do that, the community receives it as being reactive and it’s not as effective.
P1: What other ways do you reach out to the public?
Tillman: I realized while I was doing my workshops that the conversation was good, but it was only 90 minutes. To continue the conversation, I started a podcast called “#ITSNEEDED," because anytime I tell people what my business is people always say how much this dialogue is needed.
Then from the podcast we wanted to expand the conversation even further. I wanted more teachers, parents, and police officers to get the resources they need to improve things. So we’re hosting the first #ITSNEEDED conference on August 1st in Riverside, California, where we will provide resources to parents, teachers and police officers on a wide range of topics.
P1: Is there anything else you'd like our law enforcement audience to know? Any other lessons you’d like to share?
Tillman: The world needs to see officers are human. They need to know this is just a job we do. Unfortunately, sometimes people in our profession allow this job to become their identity. It can easily happen because you spend so much time on the job. But when you allow this job to become your identity bad things start happening. You start to take things personally. Lead with kindness, show people your kindness and that you’re human, but don’t let kindness be your weakness. Be strong in those moments you need to be on the job. I think that's the police officer our communities are looking to see.