On a recent Friday afternoon in West Philadelphia, two police officers arrive at the corner of 52nd and Market Streets. A loud commotion ensues, attracting the attention of passers-by. A crowd gathers, some taking photos and video with their phones.
This interaction might not be what you think – there’s music, laughter, dancing and a lot of singing.
This weekly get-together – dubbed “Karaoke with a Cop” – is the brainchild of Officer Shamssadeen Nur Ali Baukman and Officer Justin Harris, who both grew up in West Philly.
As patrol officers in the city’s 18th precinct, the pair realized that one of the biggest hurdles to effectively policing their own neighborhood was the negative perception of police.
“Nationwide, we have a real stigma against us,” Harris said. “We always see police officers using too much force or abusing power, but we rarely see images of police officers in a positive light.”
To help change that, Harris and Baukman invited the community to sing and dance with them on Friday afternoons to build a connection and show a different side of the police.
A local DJ volunteers to blast out hits from Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, and more recent artists like Trey Songz.
The idea came to Baukman a few years ago when he was on a call to disperse crowds blocking an intersection at a block party.
“I had to get on the microphone and ask them to move,” said Baukman. He surprised the crowd when he started singing with his flawless voice. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh my god, it’s so great! It’s so great!’”
Awhile later at a community relations event, Baukman suggested hosting karaoke with the neighborhood. “And the rest is pretty much history,” he said.
Growing up in West Philly, Baukman dreamed of becoming a neighborhood hero who could stop the violence he saw around him.
Harris grew up in the same part of the city and joined the police department hoping to inspire young people.
“The children in communities without a lot of positive role models need to see that someone who looks like them can make it in a world where it may seem like you can’t,” Harris said.
In addition to inspiring the next generation, Baukman and Harris hope that “Karaoke with a Cop” is a small step toward building a positive relationship with the community to help stem the violence that has plagued West Philadelphia.
“If they feel like they have a friend, they can walk up to us and tell us what’s going on,” Baukman said.
Harris said that approach is already helping to fight crime.
“People feel more comfortable approaching us, giving us information, ‘cause they feel we’re going to do the right thing for them,” he said.