U.S. attorney general and young interns at Seattle Police Department look to help mend police/community rifts.
Fixing hard problems usually requires multiple approaches, which is why U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch met with a group of Seattle teenagers in a third-floor classroom at El Centro de la Raza on Thursday to talk about policing.
Lynch was visiting Seattle this week, and told the young people that when she was a U.S. attorney in New York, people would tell her they feared the police or didn’t trust the police. And police officers would tell her it was hard for them to get the community cooperation they needed to do their jobs.
Improving the relationship between police and community has risen on the agendas of cities across the country over the past couple of years.
The U.S. Department of Justice, under Lynch’s predecessor, Eric Holder, intervened in several cities, including Seattle, to demand changes in police practices, especially in their dealings with racial and ethnic minorities.
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Lynch, when she became the nation’s top law-enforcement officer in April, made the relationship between police and communities one of her top priorities. One way she’s approaching it is by traveling around the country, listening to each side and trying to get each to see the other’s perspective.
She told the young people that sometimes communities are too quick to say police aren’t trying to be part of the community. The officers she knows want to be part of the communities they police.
Several Seattle police officers sat at the table with her and the teenagers because they are part of an outreach program that brings teens into the department to work as interns for a month and a half. This summer, 19 kids participated, most from Seattle’s Southeast, Southwest and Central Area neighborhoods.
Michaiah, 16, said that some people in her neighborhood say, “All the police want to do is put all the black people in jail.” Some of her relatives have had negative experiences with the police. So, when she got a call inviting her to participate in the program, her first thought was no, because everyone would say she was a snitch.
But then, she said, they told her it would pay $15 an hour, and she was sold.
All of the teens in the program are racial or ethnic minorities and most are bilingual. One boy has been in the U.S. only 10 months. The idea is that they’ll help the department communicate with their respective communities, and that they and police will learn some things from each other.
Sgt. Adrian Diaz, who oversees the program, asked if any of the teens knew police officers before the program. One said there was Officer Cookie. That would be Detective Denise Bouldin, who’s well-known for working with young people in Central and Southeast Seattle and teaching chess at the Rainier Beach Library.
The young people thought it would be good to have more officers doing things like that.
But this summer the teens did get to know a lot of officers and a few things about police work. They learned about the different jobs within the department, did some role-playing with officers and went on ride-alongs.
B’Azia, a junior at Franklin High School, said she saw a dead body on her first ride-along, and it shook her up. She told me later that it increased her respect for police. “As a regular person,” she said, “I know I wouldn’t be able to do that on a regular basis.”
Michaiah was on a ride-along when they got a call from a fast-food restaurant about two homeless people. A woman was on the ground having a seizure, and a man looked like he was choking her. But the woman said he was trying to help her. “It was confusing. How are you supposed to figure it out?”
In a role-playing exercise, one young man said he was acting as a police officer, while an officer pretended to be a teenager who wouldn’t leave a park after closing time. The real teenager found himself getting upset.
Lynch asked him to imagine if that kind of thing happened everyday, how would he cope with it?
After telling Lynch about their experiences, the young people had some questions for the attorney general. They wanted to know how she feels about the Black Lives Matter movement.
She said it’s important, a movement mostly of young people concerned about what they’ve been seeing, and she said it shows that, “You don’t have to be an older person and you don’t have to have an established position to make a difference.”
Young people can have a voice, she said, and people will listen.
In a different way, teens and officers in the program have had a chance to speak and be heard by each other, to learn from each other and to arrive at a better understanding of each other. That understanding, Diaz said, will build the trust that is the program’s ultimate goal.
The Justice Department’s initial approach to the long-standing problems that created distance between police and some communities was a necessary splash of cold water.
Now that eyes are open and reforms are under way, there is a real opportunity for outreach to move the mending forward.