School Climate & Safety

Programs Aim to Smooth Student-Police Relations

By Corey Mitchell — May 19, 2015 8 min read
Students at Hyde Park Academy in Chicago react as organizer Chaclyn Hunt, at center, plays back a video of the class acting out a police interaction. Through a program called Youth/police, the Invisible Institute, located in the South Side section of the city, works with the school's media program to provide students an outlet to talk about their interactions with police officers.

Mario Conway experiences a range of emotions when he sees police officers patrolling his South Side Chicago neighborhood.

Fear. Anger. Frustration.

Two years ago, Chicago police fatally shot his friend, 17-year-old Cedrick Chatman, as he fled a stolen car. During the foot chase, Mr. Chatman turned toward officers with a “dark object” they assumed was a firearm. The officers opened fire. No weapon was recovered.

His friend’s death and his own tense encounters with police have left Mr. Conway’s confidence in law enforcement shaken.

“They always mess with me and my friends,” said Mr. Conway, an 18-year-old senior at Hyde Park Academy High School. “I’m always thinking, ‘That could be me the next time.’ ”

Recent tensions between youths and police has bubbled over in Baltimore, Cleveland, Ferguson, Mo., and other cities after the deaths of minorities felled by police bullets or excessive force.

The unrest has served as a call to action: Amid growing concern about racial bias in U.S. law-enforcement agencies, groups are taking steps to foster better relations between police and minority youths.

In Chicago, lawyers, academics, and activists have brought police and teenagers on the city’s South Side together to discuss their often-tense encounters.

In Mobile, Ala., the FBI, city police, and the U.S. attorney’s office host workshops to teach young people how to prevent contact with cops from turning tragic.

Led by mayors in Philadelphia and New Orleans, a coalition of big-city leaders is shaping strategies to ease the deep distrust and frustration that sparked recent demonstrations and clashes between police and protesters.

But as efforts emerge to quell the tension between law-enforcement officers and the communities they serve, organizers and students concede that they are searching for solutions to problems that have existed for decades, if not longer.

“It’s a social issue, it’s an economic issue, it’s something that’s been going on for a while,” said Hyde Park Academy senior Tytania Holliman, 18. “It’s so complex.”

Everyday Encounters

Mr. Conway and Ms. Holliman take part in the Youth/Police Project, a program founded by the University of Chicago Law School’s legal-aid clinic and the Invisible Institute, a public-advocacy group.

The effort started well before the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson last August, though that incident gave the group’s work new urgency.

The project provides a forum for teenagers to talk about how their lives are “affected by the character of police presence in their neighborhoods,” organizers said.

The sessions focus on personal experience rather than big-picture discussions about the role of law enforcement.

“It helps me get out some of the feelings I have,” Mr. Conway said.

Participants occasionally discuss headline-grabbing incidents like the one that led to the shooting death of Mr. Chatman, who along with two others allegedly carjacked a vehicle at gunpoint.

But more often than not, students share their stories of everyday encounters with uniformed and plain-clothes officers, said Jamie Kalven, a journalist and community activist who runs the Invisible Institute.

Hyde Park Academy High School juniors Jauan Vinson, at left, and Sarah Thompson act out a police-interaction scenario as classmate Bryanna Huges films during broadcasting class in Chicago. The school is part of a program that aims to improve perceptions and relationships between minority youth and law enforcement.

“That encounter can go wrong in so many ways, and often does,” Mr. Kalven said. “The most terrible things inform the everyday encounters. It leaves them with a sense of powerlessness.”

The concerns aren’t unique to ChIcago or the cities where incidents have sparked protests and unrest.

The deaths of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and Mr. Brown in Ferguson by police have led to similar conversations in many urban areas.

“We have decades of research that proves youth in inner-city America are treated differently,” said Natasha Pratt-Harris, an associate professor of sociology at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

“The problem stems from adults not talking to children.”

To grapple with the issues of race and policing, the Youth/Police Project convened a two-day summit in Chicago in late April with students, law-enforcement leaders, and some of the nation’s leading scholars on police-community relations.

The gathering happened in a city with one of the worst records of police violence. Just this month, the Chicago City Council authorized $5.5 million in payments to victims of police torture, mostly black men from the city’s South Side.

Ms. Holliman, the Hyde Park Academy student, took part in a panel discussion, “How Youth See Police. How Police See Youth,” with guests who included Tracie Keesee, a co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In interviews with Education Week, both Ms. Holliman and Ms. Keesee bemoaned a lack of effective communication between law enforcement and teenagers.

“There’s a conundrum. Everybody was a teenager, but we often forget what that’s like,” said Ms. Keesee, a retired 25-year veteran of the Denver police department. “Law enforcement must have a deeper understanding of young people, but adolescent development isn’t something that is taught in a police academy.”

Ms. Keesee also serves as the project director for the National Initiative for Building Community Trust in Justice, an effort funded by the U.S. Department of Justice that is designed to strengthen relationships between minority communities and the criminal-justice system.

What young people want is for law enforcement to meet them on their own terms, Ms. Keesee said, whether that means coming to places where they feel comfortable, engaging them on social media, or stopping for chats on the street without the threat of a search or getting roughed up.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter recently hosted more than a dozen mayors and hundreds of other municipal leaders in his city to continue a discussion of how to stop violence that kills an estimated 13 black men and boys every 24 hours.

It’s the mission of the Cities United partnership he helped launch in 2011.

In Philadelphia, the effort includes a push to improve relations between law enforcement and youths through increased investment in the city’s Police Athletic League and the Youth Commission, both of which provide opportunities for police to interact with teenagers and preteens.

“Our focus is on knitting people back together,” said Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison, Mr. Nutter’s point man on the initiative. “We have to dispel the [notion] that it’s an us-versus-them situation.”

To suppress crime, a city can flood an area with officers, Mr. Gillison said, but that approach doesn’t address the underlying issues of race and class that often are at play when police officers and young people clash.

Eighty-five percent of the people shot and killed in Philadelphia are black males between the ages of 14 and 35, many of them residents of the city’s most distressed neighborhoods, he said.

Mr. Nutter and Mr. Gillison are products of some of those same West Philadelphia neighborhoods.

Initiative in Mobile

A meeting between a city’s police chief and the leaders of the NAACP and the Urban League won’t help build relationships, especially with youths who feel marginalized, said Charles Wilson, the national chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers.

“Most times, it’s not the chief that the community is having issues with,” said Mr. Wilson. “Make sure community policing is not just a concept and byword. Get out there and find out what the issues are.”

Why law enforcement builds relationships with communities is just as important as how such officers go about it, said Leon Andrews, the program director for the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

“Do we really show that we love these kids?” Mr. Andrews said. “That’s the approach that we need to be thinking about.”

The National League of Cities is part of the Cities United national partnership.

In Mobile, federal and local law-enforcement officials recently rolled out a training program they hope will head off the tense encounters that occur when police officers question or pull over young people.

Called STYLE, for Successful Tips for Youth on Law Enforcement Encounters, the training includes mock scenarios that help high school students understand how to respond when an officer questions them or pulls them over.

In a statement, Kenyen Brown, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, said the program helps develop “mutual respect and rapport.”

Mr. Brown hopes the sessions provide opportunities for students to chat with officers in a nonthreatening environment and overcome the “tangible fear of law-enforcement encounters” that many teenagers have.

“The end goal is to keep our kids alive and law-enforcement officers safe,” Mr. Brown said.

Like-minded programs have existed for decades. Mr. Wilson, a lieutenant for the Rhode Island College police department in Providence, has led similar presentations across the country.

“These kids get scared crapless when they get approached by law enforcement,” Mr. Wilson said.

The aim is to teach them “how to walk away from a battle they can afford to lose,” he said.

That fear remains hard to shake, said Ms. Holliman, the Hyde Park Academy student.

“We don’t know what a police officer is going to do,” she said. “They always have the upper hand.”

Mr. Brown, the U.S. attorney, likes to remind residents that police face threats as well. Dozens of law-enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty each year.

“There has to be accountability on both sides,” Mr. Brown said.

Ultimately, both sides—youths and police—are trying to share the same message, Ms. Keesee of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust in Justice said.

“Don’t generalize all of us as being bad.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2015 edition of Education Week as Groups Aim to Smooth Student-Police Relations


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