Community outreach in barbershops

Tyrone Dennis leads a discussion with community members at Pro Cuts ATL, a barber shop off Martin Luther King in Atlanta. The Investigator with the Atlanta Police Department is trying to build better relations between cops and the community with informal gatherings called "Clippers & Cops," when there is no cause for confrontation. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Detective starts ‘Clippers and Cops’ meetings to foster empathy.
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Dozens of people crowded into a barbershop on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on a recent Thursday night for candid conversation, not haircuts.

Atlanta Police Detective Tyrone “Ty” Dennis started these monthly “Clippers and Cops” meetings about a year ago, alarmed by the growing distrust of the police, especially by black men who are convinced they are being tagged and targeted as criminals.

“Today, young people are told that the police are to be feared, avoided or ignored,” said Dennis, a 40-year-old former professional basketball player and 15-year veteran of the Atlanta Police Department. “But when we share our own humanity, we break down the barriers that keep us from getting our message heard.”

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And what better place for these meetings to take place than the barber shop – long considered a hub of community conversation in low-income and minority areas.

In this relaxed atmosphere, residents are encouraged “to express their fears and feelings about the police and to open up about their own personal encounters that have all contributed to their prejudices,” Dennis said.

The conversations can be lively – even heated — and the emotions raw.

Several officers, including Dennis, are always on hand to share the perspective of the police.

“We give our own feedback on the challenges we face having to do our jobs in the hostile climate we live in today, where the media paints cops in a negative light,” Dennis said.

Across the nation, clashes between authorities and minorities have in recent years put the spotlight on police-community relations. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that 57% of black police officers and 60% of the public see these incidents as signs of a deeper problem.

The Atlanta Police Department is not the first law enforcement agency to start a community outreach program with a barbershop, such as Pro Cuts ATL on MLK, as the backdrop. But its Clippers and Cops is a model for new programs being started in other cities and is itself drawing larger and larger crowds, as well as national attention.

Lithonia businessman Reginald W. Walker and Bahama native Tiecko Whylyll never miss a meeting.

Walker speaks to the crowd from experience, talking about serious run-ins he had with the law as a teen for aggravated assault, attempted murder and drug and other charges.

Walker said he believes the hostile feelings in the community are more about rich vs. poor than white vs. black. He sees opportunities for improvement on both sides.

Police-community relations would be better if good officers spoke out more against bad officers.

For their part, community members could help the situation by being accountable for their actions, more knowledgeable about the law and even “optimistic in some circumstances,” Walker said.

He’s “not looking for change overnight.” But Walker said he sees Clippers and Cops as a positive step forward.

Whylyll said he’s found Clippers and Cops informative and inspirational.

Currently a sanitation truck driver in DeKalb, Whylyll said he is pursuing work as a policeman with Gwinnett County or APD.

Clippers and Cops had “a whole lot” to do with his plans for a new career, he said.

Whylyll said he’s always been respectful of police officers. But the discussions at Clippers and Cops have given him a much better understanding of how and why officers respond as they do to certain incidents.

The program has evolved since its launch in 2018: taking place sometimes in recreation centers or local restaurants. Women also are now welcome and involved.

“By lifting the curtain and putting our shields of authority aside, Clippers and Cops shows everyday people that all cops aren’t bad people and that, at the end of the day, we are just trying to do our jobs the best way we know how,” Dennis said. “The saying is: ‘It takes a village.’ … This is a start.”


The view from the streets: In 15 years with the Atlanta Police Department, he has seen the growing tension between the police and the community and believes Clippers and Cops can help. "Today, young people are told that the police are to be feared, avoided or ignored."

His hope: "By lifting the curtain and putting our shields of authority aside, Clippers and Cops shows everyday people that cops aren't bad people and that, at the end of the day, we are just trying to do our jobs the best way we know how." Hopefully, these sessions will create empathy on both sides and officers can learn from the stories they hear from citizens.

Dedicated to the work: This 40-year-old married father of three joined the Atlanta Police Department in 2004 and spent more than six years on patrol before his promotion to detective. He and his partner, Lakea Gaither, received the Investigator of the Year Award in 2015. He received the U.S. Attorney Award for Community Service in 2017. He specializes in criminal street gangs and is currently assigned to the Criminal Intelligence Unit/ATF Task Force.

Finds inspiration in the saying "It takes a village." "We're all part of that village, and most of us want positive change. This is a start."


Clippers and Cops

Next meeting is from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. July 25 at Styles of the Nile Barbershop and Beauty, 394 Cleveland Ave., Suite F, Atlanta. AT& T is sponsoring the event and paying for 30 haircuts.


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