A group of people participating in an online video meeting.
A graphic illustration of 12 people in a virtual, online video meeting. Graphic by VCU Marketing.

Game Changer gears up for virtual focus groups on policing

Events encourage open discussions to improve perceptions of police. “The outcomes we want are more peaceful interactions between law enforcement and the general public they serve.”

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Clark Kellogg, lead college basketball analyst for CBS Sports, will join VCU Police and VCU Athletics as they host the first virtual Game Changer event on the East Coast on May 28. The goal of the event is to help brainstorm solutions to improve relationships between law enforcement and the community.

Game Changer, developed in Los Angeles, California, by Sean Sheppard, convenes community members, law enforcement and members of the judicial and legislative branches of government for moderated focus groups to discuss community problems. The May 28 event with Kellogg, which had to go virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will be the second of an adjusted four-part series over 12 months. 

“The outcomes we want are more peaceful interactions between law enforcement and the general public they serve. The moment I introduced this model to [former VCU Police] Chief [John] Venuti I discovered what a passion he has for community policing and solving problems together,” Sheppard said.

VCU hosted its first Game Changer event of the 2020-21 series in February. The events encourage frank and open dialogue by creating a safe space for community members, law enforcement and elected officials to discuss problems and devise solutions together. Following the discussion, participants attend an event together (typically a sporting event; VCU events have concluded with participants attending a VCU men’s basketball game). This virtual Game Changer will conclude with participants virtually attending an NBA 2K game between the New York Knicks and the Charlotte Hornets. 

Game Changer staff members conduct pre- and post-event surveys and follow-up surveys to track participants’ perceptions about policing. Sheppard said that a 2018 analysis of surveys indicated that participation in Game Changer training events changes perceptions and behaviors among police and citizens. He believes that the improvement in communications between the groups enhances police legitimacy in the community.

“There’s nothing more important than the relationship between police and the community and Game Changer is an innovative model that works to remove the barriers that exist between community and police,” said Venuti, now VCU’s associate vice president for public safety.

Game Changer @ VCU Going Virtual

VCU Police is partnering with the Richmond and Henrico police departments to have officers from all three agencies participate in the virtual event. Brian Moran, Virginia secretary of public safety and homeland security, was instrumental in helping VCU Police secure grant funding and has expressed interest in seeing how the program could be used for training police officers statewide. VCU was awarded a $107,000 grant by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services for the program.

Game Changer will mainly select local community members to participate in an afternoon Zoom call for the May 28 event. CBS’ Kellogg, a special guest for the discussion, will join from Columbus, Ohio. 

Participation by judges and elected officials is vital to the program’s overall success, Sheppard said.

“It’s very important we have [them] participate in the process because once we come up with solutions together, those are going to be the people by and large to implement those solutions. And if they’re not part of the solution process, chances are those solutions aren’t going to be implemented,” Sheppard said.

A 2019 event at VCU included discussions about respect, communication, race, officer training, media and police department transparency.

“If we can have any opportunity to sit down one on one and [have a group] tell us what we’re doing right and tell us what we need to work on — that’s what this is all about,” said Henrico Police Assistant Chief Linda Toney, who also gave a nod to Venuti for his enthusiasm in bringing the program to Central Virginia.

“The first event we did here really opened the door,” Sheppard said, “and we anticipate this growing here in the Richmond area.”

Sheppard said a recent online session in another state went well, with younger participants embracing the virtual format of the focus group. Venuti said this new way of bringing police and community members together could extend into January 2021, when the grant funding ends.

“There have been challenges for organizations looking to pivot their operations during the pandemic,” Venuti said. “But with everyone moving online to collaborate, Game Changer’s online model is fitting our current need to bring officers and residents together virtually. Participants can literally be anywhere in the region and still be a part of these crucial conversations.”