Young Mentors Group cuts to the chase with black Twin Cities cop

How do you act when confronted by a cop? How do police think of their job since police brutality has become such a hot topic? Do police treat black teens fairly?

These are questions that were addressed in a dialogue organized by one East Side teenager. The dialogue put East Side highschoolers, an African American cop and some black adult mentors in the same room for a candid, open talk.

Andrew Parker, a highschooler who's part of the Conway Young Mentors Group, pulled together the group of adult mentors, and a group of about 10 teens from YMG for the discussion. The highschoolers talked openly about the challenges of being a black teenager, and the state of police-community relations. Adults invited to the conversation included Shaun Williams-Wyche from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education; Robin Hickmann, director of SoulTouch Productions, a youth mentorship and media organization; a black police officer from the Twin Cities area; YMG coordinators Tim Turner and Christopher Melendez; Greg Jackson and T.S. Arnice from a Frogtown youth outreach organization; and several parents.

YMG, helped along by adult mentors Turner and Melendez, has been a steady force in the Conway area of St. Paul near I-94 and McKnight Avenue for the past two years — they've built a modest but solid group of members who get together weekly to talk about issues at home or school, and meet with guest speakers who talk about careers and their experiences growing up. Through YMG, the mostly African American teens have found jobs, met prominent black journalists, and built up a community where they know eachothers' parents, the Sun Ray Library staff, and other adults they see in their daily lives.

Generational disconnect?

Speaking to the room of YMG teens, the black police officer said, "There's a disconnect that's going on right now. My generation... has lost your generation." The officer requested not to be identified in the Review, because he didn't attend the meeting as an approved representative of the police department for which he works. On top of that, even noting which department he comes from would be pushing it, he said, because there are so few black officers in some departments.

The officer, in plainclothes, recalled his childhood, and wondered if it differed from those of the teens in the room. He told them he grew up in a neighborhood where everyone seemed to know eachother.

If he was out of line, surely a parent's friend, or a friend's parent, or a nosey neighbor down the street would take note, and it would get back to his parents. And his parents would discipline him appropriately. It might not work like that for some of the kids in the group, he said.

He and other adults in the group lamented that sometimes, it seems like that community atmosphere is gone from communities of color.

To that, one teen offered up the hypothesis that "adults are as antisocial as we are." Just as kids are said to always be on their phones, the teen said, so too are some adults

He added that it sometimes seems the only times adults and teens interact are when adults are behaving as authority figures.

De-escalation

When a teen asked about how to talk to a cop to de-escalate a situation for yourself, the officer suggested the teens provide information and not take a defiant stance.

"Be calm, don't escalate," he said, adding that teens should tell the police their names and where they're going.

Greg Jackson, a visiting mentor who helps run a Frogtown-based organization called Down for the Cause, added to that, telling the teens if they stay calm, it can be a way of keeping control over the situation. Jackson told the boys he's saying that from experience, having had his head slammed down onto police squad cars before.

Jackson encouraged them to behave in a way that doesn't escalate the situation, and instead minimizes police officers' ability to exercise their authority. Following this, the group noted that while this isn't a permanent solution, it's a way to navigate the current mode of policing.

One mother then brought up the label of oppositional defiant disorder, or O.D.D., and the difficulty of oppositional youth. 

"Officers need to know how to handle oppositional youth," said the woman, who was attending the event with her son.

The officer noted that he'd like to see some officers learn how to interact with youth more, and how to interact with the communities they serve.

"They've got to start finding their way," he said.

"We're trying to build trust," he said, adding that police body cameras could be one way of establishing that, but not necessarily a solution.

When he was asked by a teen if there were racist cops, the officer told them yes, of course there are. In the same way, he said, there are racist teachers, racist bankers and racists in every conceivable profession.

But, he added that he believes most officers are trying to do their jobs fairly, and most are not racist. 

If you get treated unfairly, he added, you can always report the officer to internal affairs.

One high school senior discussed his experience being questioned by a security guard in a downtown St. Paul skyway.

He felt that he was unfairly profiled because he was black and listening to headphones.

The adults in the group sympathized with him, but also offered up some suggestions he could make to his own appearance and behavior. Jackson talked about how the teen was dressed, with pants sagging down, and that he was wearing a hoodie. Though they didn't say it was right for him to be profiled, they did say that he might as well avoid conflict if possible.

One teen asked the officer how his experience has changed since police brutality has become a dominant conversation around policing.

"The biggest change I see is a disconnect from the community," he told the kids.

To that end, he said he'd like to see more cops hired that look like the communities they represent, and live in the cities where they work.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PatrickLarkinMn.

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