Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes

By K.C. Harrison, Ph.D., Raj Sethuraju, Ph.D., Bryan Litsey, M.A. (retired chief So Lake Minnetonka PD), Clara Waddell, B.A.
(Thanks to Metro State's School of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice for submitting this guest article)

With national attention directed towards community-police relationships, more people than ever are asking the question “How much do officers really understand the people they are called to protect and serve?” On June 9, Metropolitan State University law enforcement students participating in the 2015 summer skills program had the chance to experience the challenges of low-income families during a “Poverty Simulation” that included the injunction to remove their shoes—literally. Criminal Justice Professor Raj Sethuraju, Metro State POST Coordinator Bryan Litsey, and Student Services Specialist Clara Waddell used materials from Missouri Community Action to create a “neighborhood” that included family homes, school and child care center, police station, bank, employment office, pawn shop, grocery store, hospital, homeless shelter, community action agency and social services office. For two hours, students were tasked with the goals of keeping their fictional families afloat amidst challenges such as unemployment, single parenthood, debt, hunger, and crime. Volunteers staffed the offices providing applications for employment and benefits, and collecting payments and transportation vouchers.

Students who began laughing and joking as they scrambled up and down stairs ended the day with sobering reflections: “It feels like the world is against you;” “You kind of want to give up.” Observations like these, Professor Raj pointed out, provide a stark contrast to the conventional wisdom surrounding poverty: that welfare recipients “depend on the system.” “You think people on welfare aren’t trying,” reported one student, but—the response was unanimous--“It was harder than I expected.” Another reflected “People aren’t scamming the system…it looked like we were being lazy, but it was so hard to keep it together.”

Why do people turn to crime? “It was really hard, as a thirteen-year-old, to find a way to provide for the family,” said one student, referring to her assigned role: “I tried [applying for work at] the convenience store, the church….” She trails off, and another student jumps in: “On the school holiday, there was nothing to do; I knew Mom needed money…so I stole a bunch of stuff.” If law enforcement students involved in an eighty-minute simulation were tempted to break the rules, how much more difficult is it for individuals trapped in these constraints for the long haul? Raj offers a theory: “We tend to think of values as unchanging, but when challenges become palpable, values are apt to change.”

Some students insisted that while the exercise helped them develop empathy, it didn’t change their views: “I get why people crack, but I still think there are other options, other tools…”; “All we had to do was write it all down...write down our expenses.” Others, however, emphasized the exponential effects of poverty: “Things start to stack up and pile on really quickly, it’s easy to fall behind”; “It’s damn near impossible to get help unless every piece of the system works together perfectly, and they don’t”; “Once you start falling behind, it’s hard to get back up.” Many students nodded enthusiastically when one of their classmates summed up the experience, “It’s like a house of cards.”

The extent to which students experienced the damage that poverty can wreak on relationships—in the family, in school, and in the community was sobering. The future law enforcement practitioners observed that the stress of finance, employment and education continuously affected family time and relationships: “Financially, employment, education…all that was going on, and there was no family time to build that relationship. As people, that’s one of things we cherish most.” The breakdown of family was reflected in the stress that “children” in the simulation reported: “As a ten year old I felt the effects of my family’s problems in school.” Few felt that staff and service providers cared about their plight: “It was hell …I don’t think the people there really cared about you; they just gave you forms to fill out.”

Volunteers affirmed that the simulation reflected the conditions they observe in their real-life work: “There were a lot of times that as a teacher I didn’t care what the kids were going through” said the volunteer staffing the school. Another commented on the inefficient bureaucracy: “a lot of paperwork, a lot of hoops: people get frustrated…I think it’s very realistic.” Brian Rose said he observed students struggle in the simulation with problems he sees when he staffs a local shelter: “When poverty hits, people don’t know where to find services.” “The word isn’t getting out about the resources” echoes Sharon Brooks, volunteering as the community action agency worker. She spent most of the exercise watching stressed students pass right by her “office” without realizing she could offer them transit passes, emergency food, health insurance, and even help paying bills.

What are the real life lessons the simulation provides? “These are the types of knowledge you want to have,” Raj tells students from the podium, “you will be able to better help the community if you can help spread access and knowledge.” Raj’s co-worker former chief of police Bryan Litsey explains that most people enter the police force because they want to help people, but then find that they’re triaging, limited in their ability to address root causes. In addition, says Bryan, “Many of us forget that human, relational part of our job.” At a time when the majority of the middle class is only one paycheck away from hitting the streets, it’s more important than ever to understand the complexity of challenges that communities are facing. “Poverty is not a game,” Raj insists. But what if a game can help law enforcement officers understand that it is not laziness or greed, but human suffering, which most often lead to crime? Let the process begin.