The “conversation” took place one day in my conference room. It was one of those rare American moments; when a Black person and a White person have an honest and authentic conversation. A police officer stopped by my office; as they would from time to time, to relax and eat lunch. Our school (SSCHS) was a near the local police station; and yes they actually came into an urban high school to relax and eat lunch; after all this school was very different from the schools where they were constantly summoned to quell some type of major problem. On this particular day the officer in question, who just happened to be White, confessed without my prompting: “You know Mr. Johnson if you were my principal and I attended this school I would have done much better in life”. I responded: “But Officer__________; you have done well; you have a good civil service job, and unlike my civil service job you can retire in 21 years!” He further clarified: “No, I love this job but I wanted to go to law school; you see Mr. Johnson, when I was a teenager I was very confused, I didn’t work hard in school, in fact I was a juvenile delinquent”. I pushed back, utilizing my standard belief about teenagers; “No, Officer ________; you were probably like most teenagers, confused, conflicted and probably not thinking through all of your actions or behaviors.” But he was determined to be clear; “No, Mr. Johnson I was a real juvenile delinquent”; and in case I continued to miss the point; he added, “I was a teenager who broke the law, a teenager who committed crimes”. Seeing that he was now clearly understood, and that he had my full attention. He went on to explain his challenged teenage years on Long Island. How when he was finally picked up by the Nassau county police his life was turned around; and thus the beginning of his love for the law. His “crew” had just harassed a store owner, stole snack items and destroyed some property. But then something very interesting happened to these young men. First they were not taken to the police station; instead they were each taken home in a police car and their parents had to immediately pay financial restitution to the store owner (outside of his knowing at the time the police negotiated this with the store owner, because they were told by the police that they were going to jail). Their next stop was a local church (again unbeknownst to them there was some prior discussion); where the police officers requested that the Priest in charge provide these “confused” young men with a “cleaning ministry”; that would engage them in hard, dirty and humbling work. They were assigned to clean the bathrooms in the church and also the attached parochial school with a brush and rag; no mop (which forced him to clean on his knees) every evening for three months; he said that he never forgot that experience. The police officers warned them they would monitor their work at the church, and behavior in and out of school. And most important: “At no time Mr. Johnson, was anything put on any official paper, report or document; it was as if it never happened; I can honestly say ‘No’ if any one ask me if I ever got arrested.” And he was correct; because he did not get arrested, he got stopped, corrected and redirected by the positive cooperation of an entire community. This I thought; “is the real meaning of Serve and Protect”. But the final comments he left with me were perhaps the most chilling. In a voice wrapped in honest sadness he said: “You know we (meaning the NYPD) are arresting young Black and Hispanic kids; giving them records, messing them up for jobs; messing them up for the future, for things we did, and got away with.”
So when people like Messrs. Bloomberg and Kelly claim they have a plan to keep young Black and Latino young men safe; could it really mean safe form future educational and employment opportunities? I really think that the criminalization of a complete class of people based on how they look, and where they live (realities for which they may have little choice); creates a long term effect of making everyone in a city less-safe, as it breaks down an important communication bridge between the police and the unfair profiling of the innocent. But it also places a tremendous burden on Black and Latino teenagers, (particularly males) who must fight an unbearable “two front war”; the very real chance that you could be stopped and killed by another teenager, or being stopped, frisked and arrested by the agency sworn to protect you from that teenager’s attack. Where is your safe haven, the place you can relax your guard? As a young man growing up in Brooklyn that place for me was the Brooklyn Public Library. First, because no self-respecting “knuckle-head” would be caught dead there; and there was no stopping and frisking there; and definitely no “frisky” behavior on the part of patrons as the no nonsense Mr. Blaze, the man in charge of security kept the library safe and quiet for reading and creative imaginations. I spent hours in that haven, but once I stepped outside to go home the two-front battle began again. If I carried checked-out books (I always had at least 4), I probably won’t be stopped by police, but the carrying of books could lead to a violent confrontation with a group of my peers. The “where do I belong?” is a tremendous grinding weight for young men of color to carry, into so many places, and for so much time in their lives.
Long after that fateful “true confession” day; I have always wondered; how many White “Juvenile Delinquents” were working alongside me, in the Board of Education, and in other parts of the NYC civil service world; and how many were able to enjoy these jobs, that provided “good-things” for their families, because they were Stopped (legitimately, because they were caught, not suspected of, but actually braking the law), Corrected and Redirected.