In Irving, Texas, it’s not uncommon to drive by a barbershop and see on-duty police officers inside. But no, these officers aren’t making arrests or gathering statements. Instead, they are improving community relations, one barbershop conversation at a time.
The idea for the ShopTalk program originated after five officers were killed and nine others injured in the 2016 Dallas police shooting. It was then that Irving Police Officer Jonathan Plunkett talked to Police Chief Jeff Spivey about improving police relationships with the African-American community.
“Going into the barbershop, they have a lot of negative conversations going on about the police — a lot,” Plunkett told Spivey. “We should be going into the shop and talking in the barbershop. Start talking to the customers and the barbers and just try to educate them somewhat and give them an opportunity to voice their concerns about the relationship between the police and community.”
What was later called the ShopTalk program started in just one Irving barbershop. But four years later, the program has spread to 21 different shops and beauty salons. And now, other departments are looking for ways to use the program in their own communities.
Spivey describes the concept behind the program as “simplistic.” There is no set schedule for the visits; officers stop by participating barbershops around once a month when they have downtime in their schedules.
“(We) go into a barbershop and sit down and say, ‘Hey, tell me what’s going on and what questions you have for me.’ If we’re not going to talk about policing or the latest viral video involving police officers, then let’s talk about what’s going on in sports,” said Spivey. “It’s about establishing trust relationships that will benefit us all in the long run.”
According to Plunkett, this is a way to show the community that officers are people, too. But, these relationships take time and trust to build.
“When we walk in, we’re walking in uniform and some of the customers are nervous. They’re like, ‘What’s going on?’” said Plunkett. “But once we are in the shop and we’re actually talking, everything is calmed down, everything is quiet, and they’re listening, they’re talking to us, and a lot of them are really engaged in the conversation. Sometimes it may take a little while to have the customers engaged because it’s different … So it’s a matter of breaking that ice. It’s a matter of breaking the ice with the customer and it’s a matter of breaking the ice with some of the officers, also.”
The residents of Irving aren’t the only ones benefiting from these improved relationships.
“The other part of this, something that I fully expected to happen, was the impact it’s having on the police officers who are involved in the program,” said Spivey. “They’re getting to know the shop owners and customers in a setting that’s very different than how they would normally encounter these owners and customers. They’re not encountering them in an enforcement standpoint or on a call where they’ve been a victim or a suspect in a crime or a witness in a crime. They’re encountering them in an environment where the customers and the shop owners are very comfortable and relaxed. It’s really helped my police officers develop a better understanding of cultural differences, of similarities in what people like and what people don’t like … It’s really worked both ways to break down barriers that tend to exist between our two communities.”
The program does go beyond the conversations inside the barbershops. Once a quarter, Spivey hosts a ShopTalk luncheon where barbershop owners, community representatives and officers come together. Barbershop owners can share what questions or concerns their customers are having. This allows the barbershop owners to continue the important conversations with their customers, even when officers aren’t in the shops.
These luncheons are also a chance for new officers to get introduced to the ShopTalk program.
“My thought is if I can get them bought in from the very start of their career, that they’re the ones who are going to keep this program going after I retire, after Officer Plunkett retires,” said Spivey. “It’s really the newer officers who are going to keep this program going and growing. Getting them involved at the very front end of their career, where they see the value in it and are bought in, is really important.”
In addition, the ShopTalk program also hosts block parties, back-to-school events and holiday toy drives throughout the year.
The program has received recognition and awards from local organizations like the Irving-Carrollton NAACP and national organizations such as the Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Policing.
All of this success has led to the program’s partnership with One Community USA. This nonprofit organization is working with the ShopTalk program to expand it outside of Irving. One Community USA also helps to provide scholarships to barbershops and salons in neighboring cities. “We’re not expecting (ShopTalk) to solve all of our bad history in our country in one meeting,” said Spivey. “But it’s worth the fight, and we’re going to continue to work on making that relationship better.”