Forum aims to open dialog to improve police, youth relationshipWritten by Brigitta Burks | News Editor | BBurks@toledofreepress.com
Three area police chiefs, Toledo youth and University of Toledo students came together to discuss ways to improve the relationship between badge-holders and young people April 3.
The “Enhancing Relations Between Toledo Youth and Law Enforcement” forum was organized by Lorna Gonsalves, a professor for an “Understanding Racism” class for criminal justice students at UT. Gonsalves wanted her students to get involved in a community action project, and throughout her work around the world, she said she noticed tenuous relations between police and youth.
“You are our most precious resource and really it’s in your hands where our future lies,” Gonsalves told the youth in the crowd of about 100.
Toledo police Chief Derrick Diggs, Oregon police Chief Mike Navarre and University of Toledo police Chief Jeff Newton also spoke.
“Many times when we deal with things on the street, we deal with things in a certain structure and a certain way,” Diggs said of police, adding that it can be difficult for youth and police to understand one another.
“One of the things I hear from youth all the time is they don’t trust police,” he said.
Newton recommended education and communication as ways to cure the “bad blood” between the groups, a sentiment Navarre echoed.
“The solution is communication and education and we can educate each other by communicating with each other,” he said.
Honesty in dealing with police is also key, Navarre said. “Police officers are lied to every single day of the week … their most difficult task is trying to discern who is telling the truth,” he said.
Shakyra Diaz, the policy director from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, also addressed the crowd. Diaz brought cards informing people how to behave if stopped by police and a large part of the forum was suggesting ways to potentially distribute the cards to area youth.
Diaz reminded adults of their roles in children’s lives. “We lose sight of how important we are and our roles as adults,” she said, adding that while it takes a village to raise a child, “it takes a community to fail a child” as well.
Mutual understanding is also crucial.
“It’s important for young people to understand the work of a police officer can be difficult and dangerous,” Diaz said, adding, “It’s also important for police officers to understand that going through the teen years is very difficult.”
She praised the chiefs’ involvement with the forum and said, “Their presence is saying a lot, but continued dialogue is important.”
After the speeches, the crowd broke into groups to come up with suggestions on distributing the cards and improving relations.
“Every time a police officer stops someone, there’s panic,” said Wayne Pirtle, a Woodward High School senior and vice president of the school’s Student African American Brotherhood chapter. Most of the teens in the small group of about 15 had been stopped by police before.
Pirtle suggested police meeting with students in plain clothes to ease tensions, talk and distribute the cards. He also advocated cooperating when stopped by police.
Brother Washington Muhammad, group moderator and program coordinator for Self-Expression Teen Theater, urged police to take some of the blame for the tension between youth and authority.
“Accepting responsibility doesn’t make you a bad guy; accepting responsibility makes you a leader,” he said.
The groups then reconvened to share the suggestions, which will be forwarded to the police chiefs and school officials.
In addition to mutual respect, many of the suggestions centered on meeting police in casual settings designed to help kids see the “human” aspects of the officers. To help personalize the present chiefs, Gonsalves organized a brief guessing game of some of the chiefs’ favorite things. (Navarre enjoys T-bone steak and Newton’s favorite actress is Winona Ryder, which elicited several “who?”s from the youth.)
Gonsalves said she thinks a summertime picnic between youth and plainly clothed officers is in order. A forum discussing specific anecdotes of youth/police relations is also being planned.
“I could see many of the young people were burning to talk,” she said.
Tags: Brother Washington Muhammad, communication, Derrick Diggs, Jeff Newton, Lorna Gonsalves, Mike Navarre, police, Shakyra Diaz, Wayne Pirtle, youth, “Enhancing Relations Between Toledo Youth and Law Enforcement”