Young people from around the metro-east came together recently to discuss one of today’s hot-button topics: police relations.
The program, called “Mending Fences,” was organized by St. Clair County Sheriff’s Deputy Annette Tim, who said she wanted young people to get a chance to see police in a different light.
“Some of the young black males said they feel they are treated differently by police, especially white officers. And, some of them said they feel they are racially profiled and stereotyped because of their race and for their style of dress ... sagging pants and hoodies. Some of the police officers said they are stereotyped because of their police uniforms,” Tim said.
The students who participated were from Belleville, Cahokia and East St. Louis, as well as students from Southwestern Illinois College, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Lindenwood University-Belleville. They vented their concerns to a panel of police officers about policing tactics, particularly when it comes to minorities.
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The police officers talked about their responsibilities and why its important for citizens to cooperate with the police. The panel was included white and black officers from O’Fallon, Fairview Heights, Edwardsville, Belleville, Swansea, Ferguson, Mo., and beyond.
What ensued was a lively discussion between the two sides that in the end helped promote a better understanding of each others’ concerns.
Tim said she felt the officers and young people needed to talk one-on-one to each other in an atmosphere where both sides could speak openly about their feelings on why there seems to be a problem between the police and the community. And, she wanted to help create a positive interaction between young people and police officers.
Sheriff Richard Watson said it is a conversation that should happen repeatedly at schools and other places to bridge the gap between young people in the community and police officers.
Such discussions have been part of the high-profile “Black Lives Matter” movement sprung from a series of protests following the shooting deaths of young black men by white police officers in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City and elsewhere.
Some of the young people who participated expressed their feelings that police officers disrespect them when talking to them. They voiced frustration over being pulled over and falsely accused. The general consensus of the young voices was that most of the time these police stops were motivated by race, and seemingly target young black males.
Some young black females in the audience said they felt the police were disrespectful to them, too, and like the young men, they felt race was the motivating factor. Some officers said young women are becoming more combative than men.
Some of the questions centered around when police make the decision to use a Taser rather than their guns. Some asked the officers how they would feel if their unarmed child was shot by police. Common questions included: “How do you manage your image in the community? If you’re black, how do you deal with your blackness being questioned? Why do police officers get mad when the community criticizes you?”
The young people wanted to talk about why white police officers especially seemed racist. One of the white officers on the panel responded that he had never seen any overt racism, and that none of the officers he’s worked with have shown themselves to be racist. Some of the black females also said they feel some police officers don’t treat them the same as other women with different ethnic backgrounds and they felt it was because of their race.
But others, both men and women, said they had only positive experiences with police and they were happy to be able to say that.
The officers on the podium said they believe 99 percent of police officers working today are good officers.
Some very positive things were exchanged between the police and the young people. Some of the exchanges between the police and black youth had to do with racism. It’s the country we live in. Our approach to each other needs to change. I hope now things will continue to get better.
Jermaine Howell, 21, SWIC student
James Giles, a 21-year-old student from SIUE, said he enjoyed the open and frank discussion between the police and the young people.
“It was a chance for the police to hear what black youth have to say and a chance to talk about the problems in the community that need to be fixed,” Giles said. He said he wants to see more community-oriented policing so that police can get to know the people in the communities they serve.
Jermaine Howell, a 21-year-old SWIC student, said the panel discussion “was a great idea.”
“Some very positive things were exchanged between the police and the young people. Some of the exchanges between the police and black youth had to do with racism. It’s the country we live in. Our approach to each other needs to change. I hope now things will continue to get better.”
Howell agreed that one way to change the negative feelings on both sides is for the police to build relations in the communities where they work. “Right now, things are not good,” he said.
Howell said he has been stopped by the police and that his experience was good. However, “I do think some of them need to change their attitudes,” he said.
Dionce Jones, a 14-year-old who attends East St. Louis senior High School, said, “In my community the police officers get out and talk to us. We interact with them in school. We want to talk to the police instead of running from them. I want to change the way we look at them,” she said.
Kawika Cornaman, a 20-year-year old student from Lindenwood, was excited after attending the panel discussion. “It was really great for the police to reach out to the community like this,” she said.
‘Police are people, too’
The panel of officers who participated included Ferguson Police Chief Alan Eikoff; Swansea Sgt. Scott Lieb; Belleville patrolmen Geoffrey Wells and Armand Harris; St. Clair County Sheriff’s Investigator James Hendricks, and O’Fallon Lt. Rob Schmidtke.
A theme throughout the discussion from the officers who participated on the panel is that communication is important. Officers told the students they need to comply with police orders when they are stopped. Their hands need to be visible so officers don’t feel threatened.
Neither of the two Belleville police officers, who are black, said they encountered any white officers or officers of any ethnicity being racist.
Harris said he wanted the young people to know that “Police officers are people too. And, to get respect you have to give respect. And the only way you get respect is you have to respect yourself.”
Harris encouraged the young people in attendance not to view videos on social media or television to conclude what happened between a policeman and a suspect. He urged them to do some research on their own.
“When people videotape, they only show what they want people to see,” Harris said
Wells said: “I have not experienced any officer, white, black or any other ethnicity, being racist. Everybody is responsible for their own decisions.”
Wells told the young participants: “We are people just like all of you. Too often, the public sees the police when things go wrong or when people go to jail. Already there’s a certain adversarial view of us. We are people first. People they can approach and speak to.”
One young man told the police officers that not everyone who wears a hoodie and baggy pants is bad. He said it is the urban style of dressing. Some of the officers told the young people that not every police officer is bad either. He said police wear uniforms because it is what they are required to wear while on the job.
Several students felt the officers should live in the communities where they work, which would establish better community relations and build trust.
Anthony Delaney, a criminal justice major at Lindenwood, said he felt the panel discussion offered “good interaction between officers and the community.”
“It gave us an understanding of what the officers are trying to do. The hardest issue is trying to get the community to adapt to their way of working. The community perceives officers as bad people. A lot of times it’s a misunderstanding,” Delaney said.
Shannon Spaulding, a master’s candidate at Lindenwood, stared with focused intensity back and forth at the officers and the young people as they asked and answered questions. “This is really good,” she said afterward.
When she was the same age as most of the teenagers in the room, she said: “We weren’t able to have discussions like this with the police. She said had she had this experience before she would have a different understanding of police officers and the way they have to work. She enjoyed also the students having a chance to express their fears of police, and why.
“The students got a chance to hear how their actions might hurt or help them,” Spaulding said.
Police officers are people too. And, to get respect you have to give respect. And the only way you get respect is you have to respect yourself.
Belleville Patrolman Armand Harris
Some of the students wanted to know what they could do in their communities to help build relationships with the police.
Hendricks, the Sheriff’s Department deputy, said they should obey police orders “because there’s a reason behind it. You might not agree with it at the time. But, if an officer says let me see your hands or come here, talk to me, you have to obey the orders. You may fit the description of a suspect. You don’t know if the officer is coming to you to fact find. If you defy the order, it probably shows something negative. What would you do if you were in their shoes?” Hendricks asked.
He added, “If you don’t like the way you were treated, you can deal with it later.”
The officers explained that the individual who feels he was not treated properly by an officer can file a complaint against him or her with their supervisors at the police agency where the officer works.
Eikoff said he is well-liked by the people in the Ferguson community. He said whether the perpetrator is white or black, he is given the same treatment. As far as stereotyping, “we have to get past baggy pants and (police) uniforms,” Eikoff said.
One young man told the police that he runs when he sees them coming out of fear and distrust. The officers told him that his fleeing causes the officers to waste time chasing him, thinking he might be the suspect they are looking for instead of looking for the real suspect.
Officers were asked whether they found that, when interacting with black people, the people feared them or were disrespectful to them. The general consensus among the officers was that the interactions were mostly positive.
One officer said that lately because of recent news events there seems to be an issue. But, most of the time there was no issue and the interactions between police and the community were positive.
Former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Annette Eckert was in the audience with some students she brought from Lindenwood, where she is a professor. She said the panel discussion was “very proactive and very necessary.”
“Education and communication are the key,” she said. “That’s how we get through things. I hope this is the first of more to come. It’s wonderful.”
Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503