Two years ago, Captain Jacques Gilbert of the Apex Police Department saw a need. Nightly news reports showcased the disparity between law enforcement officers and the communities they served. Amid the noise and violence, racial divides widened. Rather than solving the problems in our country, the protests exacerbated them.
Heeding the call, Captain Gilbert created Blue Lights College, a premier police preparatory college with a unique curriculum targeting youth in the communities that were most impacted by the divide.
Captain Gilbert sat down recently with Benecomms to share more about how Blue Lights College was born, and the future of the college.
Benecomms: Tell us about your career background.
Captain Gilbert: I served 28 and a half years with the Apex Police Department, where I earned my way through the ranks from corporal, sergeant, and then was promoted straight to captain. I've served as a detective, drug officer, and an instructor for everything from defensive tactics to physical fitness to tasers. But where I truly found my element was in the years I spent as a school resource officer.
Benecomms: What led you to open Blue Lights College?
Captain Gilbert: Blue Lights College was born as a problem-solving opportunity. I noticed there was a continuing problem with our country, a huge disconnect between police and community. It was causing more of a divide every single day. That included protests between both sides. I noticed a lot of people were protesting but there were no solutions presented during the protests. I felt like it was time to do something that was solutions-based.
As an African American Police Officer, it spoke my language and I could see both sides of the issue. As an African American, I'm aware of the fact that unfortunately, color does come into play. I'm not saying every officer sees color, but unfair treatment of African Americans does exist. In many African American communities, young people are taught to fear the police.
From a law enforcement officer's point of view, it concerned me that people would be so against the police, who are here to serve their communities, and that these individuals would paint police officers with such a broad brush. I also understood, because I'd seen it in my work, that between the ages of 18 and 20, young men and women were making bad choices. When I was in charge of the hiring process for the agency, we lost countless applicants because people came to us with a recent record.
I understood the inequities felt by both sides. So I thought, what if we could come up with a system of education that would address both? Using my roots as a police officer and my understanding of communities that have historically feared the police, I wanted to find a way to help the police and the people to rise above that divide.
My goal in creating this school was to encourage more people from African American communities to become police officers. I thought that helping them to see another point of view, which they might not otherwise see without putting on the uniform, might be just the solution to the problem.
The question became how to attract potential students from those communities.
One day, I was watching my favorite football team (the Carolina Panthers) and Cam Newton scored a touchdown. The camera panned to the crowd and I saw diversity, happiness, and joy. At that moment, nothing else mattered but that touchdown. It became a revelation to me: Sports is a universal language.
The answer revealed itself: Find a way to marry a police education with athletics. Back when I was growing up in a community just like these, we always said, athletics was going to get us out of here! So we would create a team and offer these opportunities to students who wanted to play sports after high school, but perhaps couldn't get into a D1, D2 or even a D3 college.
Benecomms: Is this a new approach to police training?
Captain Gilbert: From our research, we are the only school of this kind in the nation. The closest thing to what we’re doing is a program called PAL – Police Athletics League. This is a program that police departments sponsor across the nation to allow their officers to participate in organized sporting events, playing other police athletic leagues. But we've found a niche. Our program is unique on a collegiate level.
Benecomms: How does Blue Lights College change the way the community sees law enforcement and vice versa?
Captain Gilbert: Our program is founded on three pillars: faith, purpose, and trust.
With regards to faith, we believe there are people who need hope. I see a police officer as a minister of hope. The blue light is the beacon and light of hope that people look to when they need help. A person who understands faith will show up and offer compassion.
The next pillar is purpose. Often, when people have lost hope, we find they don't know their purpose. We want to help them find their purpose, and serving provides a great purpose.
The third pillar is trust. The only way to build a relationship and break down the walls of misunderstanding is to gain trust.
We believe the pillars help close the gap. They're not "the" solution, but a solution we can offer to the world.
Benecomms: What has been the response from the community?
Captain Gilbert: The Apex community appreciates that we are instilling a heart of compassion, a commitment to help and serve.
I often said that tradition would be our biggest enemy in our mission. Our program is certainly unique and some will argue it goes against the grain of what's the "right way" of doing policing. So, it's taking some time for some in the law enforcement community to embrace what we're doing.
My response to that is: we aren't saying that traditional police training is wrong; we're saying there's another way. We're adjusting to the needs of the communities that we serve. If someone commits a crime, we still arrest them, and we do so with dignity and respect, and we aim to help. That’s what a relationship is all about – you establish a relationship by listening and going back and listening more. (Editor's note: On the Blue Lights College website, Captain Gilbert shares a story of how one young man taught him to solve a problem through listening. His handling of that situation won Captain Gilbert recognition from the White House in 2015 as a Champion for Change. Read that story here).
We’ve successfully appealed to the younger community with our mission, and I'm overjoyed at seeing the growth in the young men and women who have come to Blue Lights College. Before they came to us, they didn’t have a big respect for the police or a desire to become one, but now they have embraced our message. That’s a win. Before, they didn’t even want to be around a police officer, but now they want to approach them and speak to them. It’s beautiful.
Benecomms: What benefits have you seen personally from this work?
Captain Gilbert: My days as a school resource officer instilled in me a passion to work with youth. I hated to leave that position because I loved working with kids. When I spend time with young people, I witness transformation. That's where I see that I am making a difference.
I think we're all called to an assignment: to serve others. I just want to see people prosper. I want to see people transform who are having challenges. That's gratifying for me. I don't ever want it to be about me, but about the community. It's a way to give back, to duplicate the purpose I've found in my career and help more people to find their purpose through service.
Benecomms: What is your vision for the future of Blue Lights College?
Captain Gilbert: Blue Lights College will be global. We will have branches all around the nation and continue to grow the programs, enrollment and, most importantly, transform people through our curriculum. I’m a huge person of faith and that’s what was told to me when I answered the call. I believe this program was meant to help our country to heal.
Benecomms: What's the most common question you receive about Blue Lights College?
Captain Gilbert: One of the questions we receive most often is, "Where is your campus?" I tell people, when you see the "Welcome to Apex" sign, that's where the campus begins. The entire Town of Apex is the campus.
We're all about serving the community, which means we want our students engaged with the community members. Through that service, schools and other community venues have opened their doors to us, providing classroom space and gymnasiums to play our games.
The entire campus is the Apex community.
Benecomms: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
We are not trying to teach young people how to do police work. We’re teaching the "why" of policing: why do we do what we do. The "how" comes when they enter the police academy. We teach the “why” because we believe that if you understand the "why" of anything it will give you a better sense of purpose, which translates to a better approach in whatever you do.