Richmond Young Adult Police Commission president, Trei Young (left), and vice-president, De'Shawn Edwards. Both are seniors at Armstrong High School. (Photo courtesy Trei Young)
The first meeting of this school year’s Richmond Young Adult Police Commission takes place on the Virginia Union University campus, in a police academy classroom dominated by a large projector screen and a constellation of Richmond Police Department brass.
The 23 commissioners are local high school students, which is to say nearly all are black youths, though a few Hispanics have joined the ranks. They sit at the rear of the room. Capt. Harvey Powers, who is in charge of the academy, stands between them and the screen. The young people are attentive, in part because Powers’ no-nonsense manner demands attention, but also because they are commissioners, selected and vetted by the commissioners who came before them. They would not spend two hours after school twice a month in the company of police officers if they did not believe they had both something to learn and something to teach.
Ashley Smith, 16, and secretary of the commission, calls it a “bridge” between youth and police. It is a place, not always easy to get to, she says, from which they seek to better understand one another.
For his part, Powers has learned, with help from his 18-year-old son, that the exercise in which he is about to enlist these young people must be separated in their minds from the reset world of video games. He is all too aware, as is every cop in this room, black and white, that they meet these youth in the era of protests surrounding the killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Freddie Gray after his arrest in Baltimore, and #BlackLivesMatter and the ambush killing of New York Police Department Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. Teenager and officer are encountering each other at the volatile intersection where race meets power and the authority of the state clashes with the autonomy of the individual. They take each other’s measure across a generational divide, in a world miniaturized by social media and its instant collective judgment.
Powers wants this experience to make their palms sweat. It is the best way he knows to put them in an officer’s shoes. Not for long. Just long enough.
So, he begins by asking them to think of their own funerals, about who would be there. He tells them he is a single father raising two teens, one a 13-year old girl. He says he has often put on his gun belt and Kevlar vest and imagined his own funeral and what he would miss in his children’s lives.
And then he asks each to imagine themselves as officers, and to stand where he stands and take from him the firearm used in the simulation exercise. It is modeled on a .357-caliber Sig Sauer handgun, the weapon of the RPD, but refashioned with a laser sighting system. Fake gun in hand, the “officer” faces the screen and is plunged into interactive scenarios with citizens in various states of mind.
“There is no reset button,” Powers tells them. “The decision you make in 15, 20, 30 seconds will live with you the rest of your days on the planet.”
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Students from Armstrong High School, Open High School, Franklin Military Academy, George Wythe High School, Huguenot High School, John Marshall High School and Thomas Jefferson High School view Richmond Police Department's motorcycles and armored vehicle in 2014. Students: Darryl Coates, Armstrong; Shellie Scott, Armstrong; Sean McGrath, Franklin Military; Herman Johnson, Franklin Military; Shakiva Squivel, George Wythe; Jordan Lightfoot, George Wythe; Monifah Pervall, George Wythe; Robert Drayton, George Wythe; Shaquilla Christmas, George Wythe; Maxine Wyche, Huguenot; Genouil Milbourne, Huguenot; Kendrece Everette, Huguenot; Garry Callis, Jr., Huguenot; Damien Harris, John Marshall; Sharika Barron, John Marshall; Breana Beale, John Marshall; Marcearrow Bruce, John Marshall; Jah'keya Smith, John Marshall; April Johnson, Open High; Jartan Poteat, Thomas Jefferson; Neziah Goodman, Thomas Jefferson; Bernard Kamgang, Thomas Jefferson; Max Balboa, Thomas Jefferson;Mazer Heigh, Thomas Jefferson; Selah Coleman, Thomas Jefferson. (Photo courtesy Richmond Young Adult Police Commission)
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Young Adult Police Commissioners. (Photo courtesy Young Adult Police Commission
Chief Alfred Durham made youth engagement one of his top five priorities when he took the job earlier this year. He frequently checks in with the commission, which was formed in 2007 by then-chief Bryan Norwood, who, like Durham, was big on community policing. Both believe that bridging the gap between youth and law enforcement is vital. Durham is greatly aided in his effort by the department’s liaison to the commission, Sgt. Carol Adams, who refers to the commissioners as, “my babies.” (I wrote about Adams in one of my first Sunday Stories. She’s the domestic violence survivor who has started her own foundation to help other survivors.)
“I love them,” Adams says. “I think this program will have a significant impact in changing their lives and that’s key for me. I want to create young leaders. I want to arm them with as much knowledge as I can about the police experience, but it’s not just about making them see through our perspective. Life is lived through your vantage point, your perspective, and there is an opportunity here for two-way learning.”
“It’s what so great about this,” says De’Shawn Edwards, commission vice-president, and an Armstrong High School senior. “They get our opinions on how to handle teen parties, on social media, on what we thought about a police shooting or a video. As much as we help them, they help us. They will ask us, ‘How do you feel about this?’ And they actually listen to us.”
It’s Adams’ idea to introduce them to the situational training. Powers knows the training, when performed by teens, provokes concern, but he is also convinced that it is the community engagement tool for which the times call. If he had his way, every high school student in the city would experience it.
IN AN OFFICER'S SHOES
In this demonstration last year, students learned how police officers are trained to use O.C spray in the police academy. (Photo courtesy Richmond Young Adult Police Commission)
“All right, who is my next officer?” Powers asks. He won’t place even the fake weapon into the hands of a reluctant youth, so he asks for volunteers.
“Step up here. What is your name?”
“All right Maxine. Take this, point it down at the floor. Pull the trigger a couple times. You’re going to see an event up there. I want you to be ready for it. Now, remember you need to talk to the screen.”
The scenario is a trespassing call. A drunk and belligerent man in a yard.
“Hey, hello, sir,” Maxine says, timid, to the screen.
“Who are you?” the man responds.
She hesitates. “Tell him,” Powers says.
The drunk man is still talking. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m the police,” Maxine says, voice growing stronger.
“You’re on my property! Get off my property!”
“No, you’re trespassing.”
“I didn’t call you!”
“No, you’re trespassing. You’re trespassing.”
“Get off my property. I kill you! I’ll hit you with this rock.”
“Hey, put it down,” Maxine says, startled.
It happens quickly. The drunk rushing toward her, arm over his head wielding the rock. She pulls the trigger three times and the sound of fake gunfire is loud in the confines of the classroom. Two are wild shots. One hits him in the chest. He goes down.
Maxine stands there, eyes wide. Powers takes the commissioners through the scene, asking whether the rock was a lethal weapon.
“Yeah!” Maxine exclaims. “He’ll bash your head in!”
So, that’s a justified use of force, Powers says, but what other options did you have besides shooting? She suggests hitting him across the head with her gun, which provokes laughter among the officers in the room. That’s an unauthorized use of force, Powers says, but you could run, he suggests. Nothing wrong with running.
“That means I’m punking out,” she says.
“It does mean you’re punking out,” Powers says. “But it also means you are not killing somebody. But if you trip and fall and that guy lands on top of you, what’s he gonna to do?”
“He’s gonna bash my head in!”
He says that the next day the headlines will read “Police Shoot Unarmed Man,” and tells the group to remember what just happened the next time they read that headline. The point, he and the other officers in the room emphasize, is not that there are no bad shootings, there are, but that the rush to judgment serves no one.
The youth are not trained officers, which influences the outcomes here, but also enhances the effect.
“It changes the mindset,” says Trei Young, president of the commission and a senior at Armstrong High School. This is her third year on the board. “You think, ‘Oh, they didn’t have to use the amount of force that they did,’ but when you were in a situation, you do worse than they do.”
The commissioners are walking in two worlds, which is not always easy, says Smith, the commission secretary. Her parents are veteran RPD police sergeants. “I know some of my friends are very anti-police because they haven’t had positive experiences with the police. They didn’t grow up around police and they don’t know there are really good police officers out there. And I can see both viewpoints, but sometimes I will be conflicted and feel like I have to be on the teenagers’ side.”
So, police and youth will talk. This year, they will talk between college prep visits to the University of Richmond, a tour of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, a visit to the homicide unit. They will talk while mapping out their futures and during their town hall meeting. And, when, just a few days after the simulation training, cell phone videos capture a white South Carolina school resource officer roughly dumping a black student who reportedly refused to give up her cellphone from her desk to a classroom floor, they know that there is what they see and what the officers see and they will talk about that, too.
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