G. Lamar Stewart: Changing the game by shifting community's perception of police

Cherri Gregg
February 18, 2019 - 6:00 am
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Gregory Lamar Stewart is changing the game by shifting the community's perception of police.

"As an African-American man, I understand the perception," noted Stewart, who works as the divisional community relations officer for the Philadelphia Police Department. "There are many people who have had negative experiences."

A military veteran who spent years working in real estate, Stewart admitted he never thought he'd wear the badge. But the Germantown-raised church pastor said he was compelled to do something in response to deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police.  

The self-proclaimed "closet activist" said the deaths of Walter Scott, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice forced him to look at different ways to make a change.

"We need people on the protest line," he said, "but we also need people in the ranks who can challenge the system from within."

Stewart chose to go behind the blue wall. He became vice president of the National Black Police Association in 2017, and in 2018, he took on the role as the community relations officer.

"It's all about building bridges between community and police," he said. "Historically, we've done a great job around kids and seniors, but there are some demographics in between that have felt underserved."

Youths, people of color and the LGBT community have all had challenges with police. Stewart said his job was to be proactive within those communities through outreach and programming in the most high-risk areas. 

One program, Turning a New Corner, brings jobs to underserved communities. Every first Friday of the month, Stewart brings employers to high-risk areas where they interview individuals on street corners during the evening hours.

"In some cases, people have gotten jobs right at the corner," he added.

The effort launched last summer in the police division in Southwest Philadelphia, and since expanded to include North and Northeast Philadelphia. Since July 2018, nearly 50 people have gotten jobs through the initiative.

 

"We need more employers," Stewart noted, "and we need to talk about wages, because for a lot of people the decision is, 'Do I make this amount of money on the street or do I take this job?' "

The need was apparent on Feb. 2 when nearly two-dozen people streamed during the 90-minutes employers conducted interviews at Bartram's Garden.

"I know the need is there," added Stewart, who personally follows up with each person who comes out to the event. "I will call each one of these individuals this week."

In addition to bringing jobs to at-risk communities, Stewart brings dialogue. He facilitates Blades, Fades and Engage, an informal town hall discussion that takes place once a month at Philly Cuts in West Philadelphia. Officers come on their own time, in plain clothes, and sit and chat with customers while they get their hair cut.

"That space is just an opportunity for us to have a conversation," Stewart said.

The barbershop is a place where dialogue on many issues take place in African-American communities. Stewart brings in a variety of officers who provide their perspectives on everything from race to implicit bias to stop-and-frisk.

"It's very grassroots," he said. "We talk about everything, including how we can serve better."

Stewart is also a pastor at Taylor Memorial Baptist Church. Raised by a single mother, he said it was his strong relationship with God and his pastor that kept him out of harm's way. It was also his faith that got him to put on the badge.  

G. Lamar Stewart
Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

In many ways, Stewart said his job is a ministry.

"Law enforcement to me is another avenue to serve the needs of the people," he explained. "It's just an extension of the work that I do in my ministry."

Although Stewart admitted he's unlikely to spend his entire career in law enforcement, he plans to make the time with the department effectively. He hopes when he does leave, the community and the department will be impacted.

"I am hoping that the department will prioritize service and not just enforcement," he said. "I hope that we will listen to communities more."

An effort he hopes will mean fewer challenges between community and law enforcement.

"My hope is that no person will feel that the system that we represent is oppressing them," he added.

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GameChangers is led by KYW Newsradio's community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg and recognizes 10 individuals or organizations that are making a positive impact on communities of color. For a full list of 2019's GameChangers, visit kywnewsradio.com/gamechangers.