When a transit officer killed Oscar Grant at Oakland’s Fruitvale BART station on January 1, 2009, Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira and his wife Dawn Williams Ferreira joined thousands of others in protesting the shooting. Feeling that some kind of drastic change to the system was necessary, Ferreira started thinking about making a drastic change himself – and left his career as a rapper with Flipsyde, a trio that toured with Snoop Dogg and the Black Eyed Peas, to become a police officer.
“I felt like I had to do something or stop talking,” Ferreira said. “If I look at myself and my friends, we didn’t know any cops, and we definitely didn’t know any cops who thought like us or read the books we did or watched the documentaries we did, so how could I expect them to behave as I would or make decisions I wanted them to make? I was looking around and wondering how I could make the biggest impact.”
Ferreira, who graduated from San Francisco State University in 2004 with a degree in Black Studies, talked to people he respected – professors, friends, his mother and his wife – while thinking about what to do. He decided to at least start the academy to see how that went. The positive reception he received surprised him, and he did so well he was the commencement speaker.
Ferreira had been working with the Alameda Sheriff’s Office for about two years when all the experiences he was having and all the viewpoints he was exposed got particularly overwhelming. In just four days, he wrote a solo show, “Cops and Robbers,” playing at the Marsh Berkeley Arts Center. He then performed it for Ami Zins and her husband, Lew Levinson, who he’d taken an acting class from when he was 18, and they agreed to direct it. Writing the theater piece, which explores an officer involved shooting from multiple perspectives, came out of reading philosophy, listening to The Last Poets, and feeling people needed to hear views other than their own.
[jump] “My background is in music, but I didn’t feel like I could communicate everything I was going through in a three and a half minute song,” he said. “My wife had been telling me I needed to write a one-man play, so I did.”
He based the 17 characters (including a TV reporter, a black minister, a racist radio talk show host, the cop involved as well as the suspect) in “Cops and Robbers” on people – or ideology – he had encountered.
“In the show, I’m telling everyone about everyone else and introducing different value systems,” Ferreira said. “Everyone can find someone they agree with as well as see the other side of the story. They’re forced to listen to that perspective for a little while.”
The most common reaction he gets after the show? Gratitude.
“When people come up to me after the show, they say thank you for opening your heart and taking these risks,” Ferreira said. “That’s so gratifying because I’m not an actor – I’m just putting out everything that’s been haunting me.”
Ferreira, who has an office at the REACH Ashland Youth Center, wants to keep working in law enforcement, at least for now. He sees some concrete changes ¬– for example, young people at the center are starting to trust him and other officers. His partner Priscilla Silva, teaches a self defense to girls – one of whom recently escaped a kidnapper, using moves she learned in class. There’s also a free soccer league and a referral system, so youth can get therapy or into a program rather than being arrested.
“I want to continue to infuse creativity and artistry into law enforcement,” Ferreira said. “ With love and courage, we can really make a difference.”
Ferreira hopes after seeing “Cops and Robbers,” people will reexamine their values and figure out a way to work with people they don’t agree with.
“While we’re arguing and bickering and debating, these kids are being shot and sexually exploited,” he said. “I want to show people how powerful the problem is and the immediacy with which we need to respond.”
The recent police shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, points to the need for immediate change, he says.
“The Ferguson incident reaffirms we’re in the same place in the country as when I decided to go into the police department,” he said. “This seems to be happening every year or two. It’s like we collectively decided it’s easier to go through this than make some structural change. Change hurts. There are some things in the play that hurt. But I’m on a mission to change some things right now.”
“Cops and Robbers” plays at the Marsh Berkeley Arts Center (2120 Allston Way), Berkeley, through Sept. 13. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 510-841-1903.