The blue uniform can intimidate some black teens, and the men and women wearing it are well aware of the challenges that come with serving on the police force.
That’s why some Buffalo police officers and teens came together Wednesday night to start a conversation about how they can improve relations.
“In my community, they are seen as a source of help sometimes, and sometimes something to fear,” said Jacob Herring, a Buffalo teen. “I’ve seen both spectrums – of the good and not so good – that police officers can do in the community.”
The conversation started at a forum hosted by the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology, an arts and training center that offers young people and adults enrichment and educational programs outside of the regular school day. The forum drew about 100 people, including teens, parents, School Board members and political leaders.
The local discussion followed several high-profile shootings of young black men by police across the nation, and the subsequent slaying of several police officers.
The tension between the two groups often stems from misconceptions on both sides, some young people and officers said.
They also agreed that not enough energy has been focused on building positive relationships between police and young people.
“In speaking to the actual youth, what we’ve found is the fear and apprehension are real because of some of the experiences here in the City of Buffalo,” said Derrick Floyd, a Buffalo community police officer who participated in the forum.
The result, some young people say, is that they feel some officers misjudge them.
The issue becomes particularly complex in neighborhoods dogged by crime and violence, and where young people often witness negative interactions between police officers and those committing crimes.
“Not all of us are gang members,” said Amara Fields, a Buffalo teen. “Some of us are here to do something good. If they want us to see them as something good, they have to see us as something good.”
Young people said they, too, have been exposed to mixed messages about the role of police, in some cases through the media and in others from their own experience.
Herring said he has been at the mall with friends when police have followed or questioned him.
Dasie Lockett said recent instances of police shootings of suspects make her fearful of officers in her neighborhood.
“I’m scared to walk outside,” she said. “When I see a police officer, I think ‘I’m not going out there or I’ll get shot.’”
Some police officers said they, too, feel misjudged by young people in the community. While acknowledging the apprehension many teens feel, they also implored young people to not let a handful of instances taint their view of all officers.
“The first thing I say is ‘When I take off this uniform, I look like you,’” said Buffalo Police Officer Angelo Threats, who is black. “My first experience with a police officer was one coming into my house and taking someone out. I was apprehensive, too.”
Both students and police officers at the forum agreed they can begin to find common ground by sharing more positive experiences, such as extracurricular activities that are popular among young people.
“It would be a good experience for the younger children to be around police officers and see that it’s OK,” Herring said. “There are people you can go to in a time of need.”