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Dead teenagers and community policing

Another day, another media report of a dead teenager at the hands of a police officer. The saddest part of this report — and many others as of late — is that the race/ethnicity of the dead teen and of the police officer are posted. On the one hand, I understand the need to post that information because of the unrest we’ve seen in different parts of the country as white police officers shoot black male teens. On the other hand, it kind of seems like a way of saying “look, it wasn’t about race” before all the facts are laid out on the case. As if the race or ethnicity of the police officer makes the death of a teenager with the rest of their lives ahead of them any less brutal and sad.

The problem is not simple at all, and I can see why people on any side of the debate about how police handle confrontations are talking past each other (or yelling past each other in too many cases). On the one hand, we have instances of police officers responding with overwhelming deadly force to a perceived threat. Right after things went bad in Ferguson, Missouri, police officers from St. Louis responded to a call of a man with a knife and shot him several times.

Personally, I gave the officers the benefit of the doubt because I wasn’t there and didn’t see what happened. If I have a gun and someone is coming at me with a knife, I’m more than likely going to use the gun, especially if the person with the knife is near other people. But then a cellphone video of the incident came out, and it left me with more questions than answers. You can see the video here. The man approaches the police and is instructed to drop the knife. He doesn’t, and he continues to approach the officers. They shoot 9 to 10 times and the man drops. He dies shortly thereafter.

What left me with questions was the last two shots fired. They were fired while he was on the ground. I hate having to speculate because I’m not in the officers’ shoes. I’ve had not training as a cop, either. But those two shots at the end — once he’s on the ground — seem excessive. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

The bigger picture in all of this is how police officers are trained to deal with these situations and how they go about doing community policing. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go on a walk in East Baltimore with the police officers that patrol the area. They do it on foot, and they get to know the people they’re serving. Their chief used to walk those same streets as a patrol officer, and many of the people in the neighborhood saw him grow up. All of that was in sharp contrast with my experiences with police growing up.


Policing Serving the community

When I was growing up in Mexico, police officers were to be respected, but they were also anonymous. The only time you interacted with them was during bad situations. So you instinctively didn’t want to interact with them because it meant that you were in a bad situation. They drove around in their cars and trucks, and you hardly ever got to see their faces. And it was pretty much the same way when I went to high school in El Paso, Texas. The only interactions I had with police were when I responded to a couple of accidents, when I pointed out a drunk driver to them, and a couple of occasions when I stopped guys from fighting each other or beating their women. Oh, and when I got pulled over a couple of times. The police were not my friends, neighbors, or anyone I knew personally.

It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve gotten to know cops. A friend from high school is a cop back in El Paso. The husband of one of my wife’s friends is a state trooper here in Pennsylvania. The local police were the first to show up to our house when our smoke detectors went off one cold winter night. They were also quick to show when I called them because a car alarm down the street kept going off at 2am. And I met the chief of police of the town at a town hall meeting on racism when I first got here. That all has humanized the police force to me.

Unfortunately, police officers are still strangers in many of the communities they serve. Just as unfortunate, young people (mostly young men) have been convinced by their experiences and those of their peers that the police are on the other side of some sort of spectrum. The police are “they” while the young people are “us”. And the two shall only converge for conflict, not for anything constructive. Sure, there are criminals within those populations of young people. Let’s not kid ourselves about that. And there are corrupt and insensitive officers among the greater brotherhood of law enforcement. Let’s not kid ourselves about that, either. But the overwhelming majority in both groups are good people and people who want to do good. Very few young men and women grow up wanting to be criminals. And very few go into law enforcement wanting to shoot people or push them around.

In my humble opinion, the way that community policing was presented to us in East Baltimore seems more effective than two cops in a car driving around with their windows up and only interacting with the population when a call comes in for help. I saw these police officers approach people and greet them with respect, even a hug here and there. One man standing at a light post knew the chief, and the chief knew that it was the man’s birthday. Furthermore, the officers told us that they went to local churches in the area and that they had friends and family there as well. In essence, it was in their own best interest to properly police that district. If it went bad, it was going to have repercussions on them and the people they loved. As things got better (and they have gotten better, no matter what pop culture tells you about Baltimore), their friends and loved ones were living in a better community.

If you go back and see the major cases about police brutality or shooting of unarmed teenagers, the most common characteristic of the cases will be that the officers and those brutalized or killed had no common denominator, no common history, and they hardly ever interacted with similar people, let alone each other. That’s why you see these things happen between ethnicities and within ethnicities. It’s not just the color of the skin that causes conflict. It’s the not knowing the other person or their point of view that allows for this to happen.

Of course, I’m writing all this from the comfort of my suburban home. I’m not on the front lines of policing and with an unstable individual coming at me with a knife with God-knows-what intentions. And I’m not a disenfranchised teenager who has been fed the idea that cops (or people different than myself in general) are not to be trusted.

So what can I do to change this? What can we do to make things better?

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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