Once Friendly, Boys and Cops Turn Against Each Other in Communities of Color
By Cara Solomon
To the little boys of Bushwick, Brooklyn, Police Officer Fernando Martinez often seems like a superhero in blue, protecting them against the dangers of a high-crime neighborhood. But as soon as they hit 13 or 14, Martinez said, the boys begin to look at him--and his uniform--with something close to disgust.
"The young kids, when they see us, they wave," said Martinez, a youth officer at the 83rd Precinct who often speaks at elementary schools in the area. "As they get into intermediate school, they stop waving."
At the same time, in what amounts to a mirror image, Martinez said the police view the emerging teens with deepening suspicion.
Interviews with six police officers and about two dozen black and Latino male teenagers, in Bushwick and in Hunts Point in the Bronx, confirmed the pubescent turning point when boys and cops come to regard each other as mutually menacing. Feeding off a potent cocktail of firsthand experience, stereotypes and anecdotes, the boys begin to see the police as representatives of a larger, threatening force. For their part, the police, influenced by juvenile crime statistics, street encounters and stereotypes of their own, start to see the maturing youth as potentially dangerous.
Both groups voiced frustration at having been stripped of their individuality, and made to pay for the actions of the worst in their respective communities, from trigger-happy police officers to gun-toting drug dealers. There was the sense in both camps of resentment and anxiety.
"Automatically they think, if you have baggy clothes, that you’re not a civilized citizen. You’re an outlaw," Frances Landen, 20, said of the police, as he recalled his own teenage years.
"They see police officers in a different light, like we’re not human almost," said Martinez of the teenagers.
* * *
When Nelson Scott was a boy, police officers paraded in and out of his elementary school classes in Bushwick, spreading the word. Standing tall in their uniforms, they urged the kids, mostly black and Latino, to call the Police Department in times of trouble.
A neighborhood heavy with drugs and domestic violence, Bushwick had the second highest murder rate in the city in 1998, city figures show. Their duty, the officers said, was to protect and serve. Scott believed them.
And then one spring Sunday morning, Scott was headed home, weaving his way through the streets of Bushwick, his hands tucked inside the pockets of an oversized rainjacket. A squad car screeched to a halt by the curb, he said. Doors opened and two officers jumped from the vehicle, guns drawn. They searched Scott, looking for a weapon in the pockets of his rainjacket, the teenager said. Then, finding nothing, the officers climbed back into their car and drove off.
Scott was 14 at the time. The officers gave him no explanation for the stop and search, he said. Having been stopped and "harassed" once before, this incident only pulled Scott further away from the police.
"I began hating them," said Scott, now 19.
As soon as he became a teenager, Scott said, the police no longer looked at him and saw a child in need of protection; instead, they looked at him and saw a threat. "I’m black and I wear baggy clothes. They think I’m about to do something. They expect me to have a gun."
Some officers say their assumptions are rooted in reality. And studies do indicate links between gender, race and juvenile crime. Although juvenile homicide has dropped sharply in recent years, a 1999 national report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention showed that, between 1980 and 1997, nine of out 10 juvenile homicide offenders were male, most were over the age of 15, and more than half were black. Even so, experts warn against sweeping prejudgments about black youths.
Meanwhile, some officers say that the stereotyping is mutual.
Since 1993, juvenile homicide has dropped precipitously, according to a 1999 national report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. But the report also showed that between 1980 and 1997, the latest year for which figures were available, 93 percent of juvenile homicide offenders were male, most were over the age of 15, and more than half were black.
"The very thing that we do with them, lumping them all together - that’s the very thing they do with us," said Detective Cliff Hollingsworth, a member of One Hundred Blacks in Law Enforcement who works out of Brooklyn’s 82nd Precinct.
Despite statistics showing police shootings of civilians is rare in New York City, many male teenagers of color look to recent high-profile incidents of police brutality and classify officers as a dangerous faction. And even as juvenile crime drops among blacks and Latinos nationwide, some police officers working in crime-infested, minority neighborhoods continue to treat the average teenager as a potential criminal.
The basis for the stereotyping is often something as simple, and powerful, as style of dress. Teens associate the crisp, blue uniform of an officer with police brutality; police associate the baggy pants and black bandana of a teenager with the gang members who made it famous.
Alienation between the police and male teenagers is inevitable in neighborhoods like Bushwick, said professor Jeffery Fagan, of the Center for Violence Research and Prevention Center at Columbia University. In a sense, the only question is when the antagonism kicks in. For some boys in crime-ridden neighborhoods, he said, it begins as early as age 7, when they witness older family members and friends arrested or mistreated by the police.
Nelson Quinones, a teenager who as a child watched officers take his parents away in a drug raid on his home, said he has hated the police since that incident. While other children’s parents threatened them with the boogeyman if they didn’t perform chores, this boy’s grandmother spooked him by insisting the police would come get him if he did not watch himself.
"As time goes on, they see relatives getting arrested, and they sort of feel like we’re not the good guys anymore," said Officer Martinez.
Martinez, who grew up in Williamsburg, a 10 minute walk from where he works, said he feels a kinship with Bushwick’s culture and the kids who live inside it; in many of these teenagers, Martinez said, he sees himself. But when they look at him, he said, they see an enemy.
Part of the problem, say police officers, is the lack of interaction between the two groups as the boys grow older. The Police Department does not see relationship-building as a focal point of its youth anti-crime strategy, said Detective Hollingsworth, adding that funding has been cut for recreational and educational programs, where officers interact with community youth.
And so a relationship that begins in the safe haven of schools comes of age in the charged territory of the streets, where stop and searches are often considered a necessary evil in controlling high-crime neighborhoods.
"For some kids, they almost anticipate this as a rite of passage," professor Fagan said, speaking of the stop and searches.
In the most recent mayor’s Management Report, reducing juvenile crime was one of eight major priorities of the New York Police Department. The number of truants returned to school so far in fiscal 2000 has increased by 11 percent from last year, according to the report. And the average number of juveniles admitted to secure and non-secure detention increased 6 percent over that same time period.
At Bushwick Outreach Center, an alternative high school, males in three separate classes said they had been stopped by police officers at least once, often without explanation. The teenagers said they were stopped for everything from fitting the description of a wanted criminal to walking to school a few minutes after morning classes had officially begun. One student was detained when an officer spotted him at the nearby subway station swiping his school Metrocard through the turnstile several times, to no avail-the officer assumed the card was stolen, the teenager said.
Most teenagers had been threatened with arrest when police discovered they were not carrying an identification card, though Martinez said New Yorkers are not legally bound to carry ID.
Ellie Weiss, a teacher at Bushwick Outreach Center for the past 22 years, has written letters of complaint to the 83rd Precinct about police treatment of the neighborhood kids. She said the police often assume her students are guilty, if not of truancy, then of something.
"I think they see most kids in this neighborhood as low-lifes," said Weiss.
Like her students, Weiss said she believes the police department’s truancy initiative, which Martinez characterized as a top priority, is just an excuse to stop kids and enter their names in the department system for further reference, and to check for outstanding warrants.
But officers said that, in their experience, truancy is often the first sign of a larger disregard for the law among teenagers. This is why police tend to view truants as guilty of more serious criminal behavior until they can prove the teenagers can prove themselves innocent, officers said.
"We have to start thinking about the trauma and agony that kids go through," said Hollingsworth, referring to the stop and searches conducted by police officers. While growing up in the South Bronx, Hollingsworth said, he was once hauled off a city bus by police officers, who thrust him at the window of their squad car. Inside, a man took one look at the boy, and shook his head no. The officers left without offering an explanation. It is a memory, said Hollingsworth, that stings him to this day.
"They make you feel low," said 20-year-old Landen, referring to some police officers he has met. Landen said he has been stopped several times since he was 14 and arrested, wrongly, twice. "They make you feel like you have no power."
That view was echoed throughout the classrooms at Bushwick Outreach Center, where male teenagers told stories of being taunted, laughed at and mishandled by the police. Still, some mentioned police officers who followed the department’s motto--"Courtesy, Professionalism and Respect"-treating the kids more as innocents, less as criminals. One 14-year-old boy said a pair of officers he knows by sight recently warned him to stay away from a crime scene near his home. The boy--a tall, black male--fit the robber’s description, they said, and the police might automatically suspect him.
It’s the neighborhood criminals who make the rest of the black and Latino youth look bad, said Landen. "They do stupid things that make the police stop everyone."
In most cases, said Landen, you get what you give. If you act like a civilized person, you will be treated as such, he said. But if you question an officer’s right to stop you, or even accidentally laugh from raw nerves, you come across to officers as a threat. On the heels of the recent police shootings of unarmed black men, most male teens said they were particularly nervous and wary of agitating the police. They tried to remain submissive at all costs, they said. And that instinct has been reinforced, time and again, in advice from teachers, parents, and police officers, they said.
"Years ago, you would tell your child, ‘If you have a problem, run to the police.’ Today, you’re telling them to run from the police," said Hollingsworth, adding that he has schooled his three sons in the etiquette of dealing with police officers during stop and searches.
Hollingsworth, a 17-year veteran of the Police Department, lays much of the blame for the alienation between cops and kids squarely at the feet of New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani. The mayor, he said, has fostered a police culture that lusts for crime reduction statistics. "I don’t think this job deals now in the human aspect of policing," said Hollingsworth. "Honestly, if you ask the Police Department, there are no quotas. But statistics is a huge game with the Police Department."
Too often, said Hollingsworth, teenagers in poor, minority neighborhoods get caught in the department’s ceaseless push for more arrests.
"The price of aggressive policing is a generation of kids that lose respect for the law and the people that enforce it," said professor Fagan.
And with city funding cut from recreational programs, where police and male teenagers can meet in a friendly setting, there is little chance to heal the divide, Hollingsworth said.
And so through One Hundred Blacks in Law Enforcement, Hollingsworth spends much of his free time speaking to community youth groups, trying to bridge the gap. Even after a couple of hours of role playing, Hollingsworth has noticed a difference in kids’ attitudes, he said; they begin to better understand the pressures facing police officers in high crime neighborhoods, and to view Hollingsworth himself more as a human being.
In interviews, officers agreed that they might better understand youth, and youth might better understand them, if the department required more interaction between the two groups in recreational and educational programs.
"I think we need more than just basketball," Scott said, referring to the recreational programs between youth and police at the Police Athletic League.
But Jerome Ramirez, 18, said his exposure to his uncle’s police colleagues has kept him from classifying the police collectively as the enemy. Though the police have stopped him several times, Ramirez said the time he spends with his uncle’s friends has helped him judge officers as he meets them, one by one.
Even without the benefit of close relationships, a few teenagers said they could see beyond their resentment long enough to appreciate the good work some officers do, cleaning the streets of drugs and other neighborhood threats. "We hate them but we need them," said Landen, adding that hate was probably too strong a word for what he felt.
* * *
When Martinez looks around Bushwick, he is glad his own growing up is over and done with. Things have changed for the worse in the neighborhood, he said. The schools, with their metal detectors and police presence, remind Martinez of jails. Still, he can’t understand why he finds so many kids roaming the streets after the bell rings for class. "They’re walking like they have no destination," he said. The worst part of it, he said, is running into the kids, age 11 or 12, who tell him proudly that they have dropped out of school.
Martinez, who left a job on Wall Street to join the police force, said he has returned to one of the highest crime neighborhoods in Brooklyn to make a statement.
"I grew up 10 minutes from here," said Martinez. "I wanted to show the kids that they can do it too."
On June 24, if all goes well, Nelson Scott will graduate from Bushwick Outreach Center and head off to college, where he plans to major in computer science. The dream, he said, is to work in the video game industry.
He still remembers the days when, as a child, he watched police officers grace the television set of Sesame Street. They appeared to him then as heroes, he said, intent on protecting kids.
"Now it’s different," said Scott, who has been stopped about four times since the incident with the rainjacket, years ago. These days, he watches MTV, where the videos show images of abusive cops, and listens to radio, where the talk is of abusive cops, and reads the paper, filled again with news about abusive cops. He no longer believes police officers exist to protect kids.
"In reality, as you see on TV, that’s not true," he said.