Police officers and at-risk youth, some of whom have been in trouble with the law, met in Homestead Friday to discuss ways of improving police and community relations. A panel of both law enforcement officers and youth spoke and engaged with the crowd.
“We talk about how we can impact those arrests by changing police way of thinking, changing youth way of thinking when they’re out on the street so that they know when they interact it doesn’t have to be negative,” said Kimberly Booth, assistant chief probation officer with Allegheny County Juvenile Court.
The one-day forum had between 55 and 60 youth participants and between 20 and 25 law enforcement officers. The morning session included role play where youth were able to act as the police and police were able to act as youth. One of the topics tackled was perception.
Several of the young people who spoke said they feel disrespected by police. They said they feel police think the worst of them right away even if they are not doing anything wrong. On the police side, some said officers are taught to be distrustful and tensions can be heightened when self-perseveration becomes a priority.
“There is a large percentage of the youth here that do feel that law enforcement is only out there to harass them and arrest them and rough them up,” said Allegheny County police officer Mike Spagnoletti. “I hope we break down some of those barriers and get some of those young people who believe that way to maybe see it from our side in the law enforcement realm.”
Acting Pittsburgh Police Chief Regina McDonald said the forum is also a way to help police officers better understand the city’s youth and “adolescent development and the youth culture and the other side, for the young people to have a better understanding of the police officers and that the officers’ main concern is doing their job and getting home safely at the end of the day.”
The overall goal of the forum was not only to address police and youth relations, but to address a system that disproportionately affects minorities. Minority youths makes up 85 percent of annual referrals to the juvenile justice system. According to Booth, among the kids in attendance, most were black and about 85 percent had some sort of interaction with the law or were on probation.
“So it’s on a continuum from arrest to placement in a secure facility,” she said. “We’re trying to address it at the front end of arrest, address some of those numbers hoping that the youth don’t have to interact with the police at all.”
The message being repeated by both officers and youth is that respect is key in interactions. As the two groups wrapped up sharing different experiences and observations, one of the moderators pointed out “we have more in common than we have apart.”