Voices of Youth: While some teens fear the police, veteran cop is hopeful relations can improve

This story was written by Connor McBride as part of the Kalamazoo Voices of Youth Program. The photo illustration is by Omarian Sanders-Fields of the Voices of Youth Program. The Voices of Youth program is a collaboration between Southwest Michigan Second Wave and KYD Network, underwritten by the Stryker Johnston Foundation. 

Why are young people so afraid of the police?
 
Zoann Snyder, director of the Criminal Justice Studies Program at Western Michigan University and an associate professor in its Department of Sociology,  lays the blame on the get-tough-on-crime campaign of the 1990s.
 
A prominent criminologist had labeled youths as “super-predators” and “they were unfortunately very specifically talking about young men of color, young Black men,” Snyder says. “So, this idea started rolling that we needed to start policing youth more seriously and that we needed to stop them before they became out of control.”
 
By 2003, people learned that the data and perceptions of the criminologist, by his own admission, were wrong, Snyder says. “But it did result in longtime consequences of criminalizing youth, of surveilling youth. Look at public schools. We have metal detectors. Many schools have a police officer there. The idea is that they’re supposed to be keeping people safe.”
 
Even young people who’ve never personally had a negative interaction with law enforcement can be fearful.
 
Emily Gallardo, a senior at Loy Norrix High School in Kalamazoo, is among them. She says her fear that officers are not here to protect her is rooted in her parents having had less than pleasant experiences. She thinks race played a role in that. Gallardo is Mexican and her mother is an immigrant. 
 
“When it comes to what color your skin is, based on the stories told to me, it just makes me feel like I need to be careful when the police are around me,” Gallardo says, “because I don’t want them to think I’m doing something wrong when I’m doing something right.”
 
Snyder says we now have to “start unpacking this legacy that we put in place under the auspices of keeping us all safer. Instead, we have youth who are feeling over-surveilled. They feel anxiety and school doesn’t necessarily feel like a safe place to be.”
 
Youth who are people of color say they would like to be sure they will be treated fairly by police officers.Being Mexican and Black, I feel like I’m targeted sometimes,” says Omarion Sanders-Fields, 18, another Loy Norrix High School senior. “If I’m simply walking or if I have my phone, they may think it’s a weapon or they might shoot me or I might get racially profiled.”
 
Sanders-Fields says he’s had one friend have an encounter with police that didn’t make sense. 
 
“I had another friend tell me he got pulled over,” Sanders-Fields says. “The police officer pulled him over only because they thought he was Black. And he was white.”
 
‘Era of mistrust’
 
In a study conducted by The National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, police-initiated contacts with the public (usually social, relationship-building opportunities) fell by 19 percent from 2011 to 2015. The data was then further broken down, stating that Black people were less likely to want to interact with police. Hispanic people were more likely than them to want such interactions, and white people were more likely than either of the other groups to want police-initiated contact. The data found that youths had also started to distrust police more.
 
“Youth today are growing up in what has been described as an ‘era of mistrust’ of police,” wrote Kathleen Padilla and Adam Fine in an article about youth perception in regards to the police. Referring to positive perceptions of the police, they wrote: “Across racial and ethnic groups, youths’ perceptions of police have dropped in recent years to a decades-long low.”
 
Social media and the news have played a big role in the loss of trust between police officers and the community, says Victor Ledbetter, a retired police captain who worked for the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety for 25 years.
 
“Social media,” he says, “includes posts and articles by people writing about killings, more often than not police shootings involving innocent people, or about the lack of punishment – or even the wrong punishment – that perpetrators receive.”
 
Social media and the news play a big role in the loss of trust between police officers and the community, says Victor Ledbetter, a retired police captain who worked for the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety for 25 years. Photo by Casey GrootenLedbetter says he knows police are not held in the highest esteem right now. But he believes most officers treat people with dignity and respect as they are trying to do a difficult job. He says relationships between the police and the community started to fall when to save money certain programs were cut.
 
 “One of the things they cut was that D.A.R.E. program, where police were in the schools, kids were young and they could develop those relationships. Police were a very integral part of the community.”
 
Ledbetter says there are also fewer police officers in Kalamazoo now, so it’s tougher for officers to make connections. The Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety had about 238 officers when he started in police work about 30 years ago. He estimated that there may be about 205 now due to retirements, people leaving and other changes.
 
“When you’re missing that many people, officers on the street have to do a lot more overtime,” says Ledbetter, adding that means they have less time for walking in the neighborhoods and talking with people.
 
Asked why teens, many of whom have not had any negative (or positive) interactions with the police are afraid of them, Rachel Chakutema, 17, of Loy Norrix High School, says: “There’s a lot of news to watch of like kids or teenagers or anybody – of police sometimes killing people for no reason at all. So, that can make them scared.”
 
Chakutema says she has never had a bad interaction with police. But she’s heard stories from others, including her father, who in early April headed to Grand Rapids to support an immigrant African community there who were grieving the fatal shooting of Patrick Lyoya, 26. A police officer killed him during a traffic stop for improper license plate registration, following a brief foot chase.
 
“The guy who was killed, he’s Congolese (from the Democratic Republic of Congo) and my dad is from Congo,” Chakutema says.
 
What would she ask the police? 
 
“Are they under a lot of pressure to just come out and stop a person? Could he not wait for the backups to come? Like a few minutes more to wait?”
 
Officer training
 
There is no standard, nationwide curriculum requirement for officers going through police academies. Training can differ from state to state. 
 
“Cadets are required by the Michigan Commission of Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES) to have 25 hours of training in the ‘Ethics of Policing and Interpersonal Relations,” writes Raine Kuch, a journalist with Kalamazoo-based Public Media Network. “Out of the 20 academies in the state of Michigan, only the Kalamazoo Valley Law Enforcement Training Center Police Academy has chosen to teach diversity with a large degree of hands-on participation from the community.”
 
Ledbetter, who is also director of training at the Law Enforcement Training Center at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, says he works to try to help police departments recruit officers who represent the ethnic groups they are supposed to serve. He has also been praised for working to improve training for new police officers.
 
“We do de-escalation training,” Ledbetter says. “We do implicit bias training. We go over juvenile laws. We go over juvenile contact. We do a tour of the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home. We deal with the judges and referees in the juvenile home. And we try to understand how to deal with juveniles that we come across. But like anybody else, we just treat them with dignity and respect and try to develop relationships with them.”
 
In order to become a police officer, an individual needs a two-year degree in any major from college or university. Additionally, 594 hours of training must be completed at a police academy. 
 
The Kalamazoo Valley Law Enforcement Training Center has a 16-week basic police training academy. The training includes four hours of situation de-escalation training and, since Ledbetter became director of training in 2017, it has added an eight-hour block on implicit bias training. That training teaches people that we all have biases. It teaches participants how to recognize what they are, and how to deal with them.
 
“A person can enter a police academy at 18 years of age,” Ledbetter says. “However, departments around here won’t hire anyone until they’re 21. So, in order to come into the academy, you’ve got to be close to 21 by the time you graduate the academy and you must have at least an associate’s degree at the minimum to be a police officer in the state of Michigan.”
 
He says the basic police academy can train up to 30 officers at a time. Once a person has a degree and has completed training at the academy, that still doesn’t mean he or she will automatically be a police officer. Graduates must pass a licensing exam which covers everything they learned at the academy. Officers get two chances to pass the exam. If they fail twice, they must retake the entire police academy course. People who want to be officers also must pass a drug test, a physical exam and a psychological evaluation before or after receiving an employment offer.
 
But once someone has been accepted into a police department, he or she does not have to do any more screening.
 
Ledbetter says he has seen police candidates as young as 20 and as old at 52. People on the older end of that spectrum, are people who may be looking for a second career or who always wanted to be a police officer. He says older people may work out better because they have more life experiences and they know how to talk and deal with people “and they’re less likely to get into confrontations or escalate a situation just because they have kids or perhaps grandkids and they know how to deal with situations and they come across better, … and plus, by them being older, they’re not a threat to the younger kids who might feel compelled to want to challenge them.”
 
He says more women and people of color are needed in law enforcement. “Right now, police work is a white male-dominated field, and each police department should represent the community in which they serve.”
 
What can be done?

Asked what can be done to bring police and the community closer, Zoann Snyder of WMU’s Criminal Justice Studies Program, suggests better communication.
 
“Communication has to come from police to the community,” Snyder says. “But there has to be feedback from the community. There has to be the opportunity for safe spaces where dialogue can take place. How do you feel safe with someone if you’ve never met that particular person or group? … It’s hard to feel safe when what you’ve seen for the last two years is aggressive, violent encounters. It’s hard to then feel OK to approach someone.”
 
Snyder says she has experienced her share of traffic stops and has felt her stomach churn when she is approached by an officer. But that’s primarily a fear that she will end up with a costly traffic ticket. She says that’s not the fear of harm that people of color may have when they are approached. And it’s not right to expect members of the public to simply remain calm when things go wrong. She says police should be trained to remain calm also. She praised Ledbetter’s training for trying to make that happen.
 
Ledbetter says he knows it can be uncomfortable to interact with the police. But he encourages officers and cadets to talk to young people and try to establish a rapport. 
 
He encourages young people to say hello in casual situations and, when possible, and try to get to know an officer.
 
“It’s a two-way street,” Ledbetter says. Officers stand back sometimes because they are not sure how they are going to be received, he says.
 
“It’s like going to a party. You’re sitting there kind of awkward,” he says. Officers have to decide, “Do I say anything? Do I dance? Do I get in? So it’s a human effort. But it takes both sides, from the community and the police, to fill that gap, to build that bridge, to make that connection.”
 
Asked what she thinks is necessary to make things better, Loy Norrix student Emily Gallardo, says she believes both youth and officers have work to do.
 
“Well, I feel like kids and cops should both act differently,” she says. “I know some kids, teenagers, should start maturing and stop acting foolish – start maturing so they could stop getting in trouble with the police. And I feel like the police should just like … have a conversation with teenagers or make-up something where teenagers could go and interact with them so they can actually meet the police.”

Conner McBride is a rising Senior at Loy Norrix High School. She liked the inaugural 2021 Voices of Youth Kalamazoo program so much that she returned to write a story for this year’s program. Her interests include reading, music, baking and cooking, photography, hiking, and traveling. Sleep makes her the happiest and spoilers for a book she is reading make her the saddest. Her career interest is Executive Chef.