Teach your children: lessons for youth on police

Many black parents identify with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s comments on the need to teach his biracial son Dante how to interact with police. (Video: Office of the  Mayor)


Carol Gray wakes up to live another day without her son, who was killed two years ago by police in East Flatbush. The two officers were not charged with any crime in the shooting of her son, but she says she hasn’t given up on demanding justice for him.

According to police, two officers patrolling East Flatbush in an unmarked car came across Kimani Gray, 16, walking with a group of men around 11:30 p.m. on March 9, 2013. The teenager separated himself from the group and adjusted his waistband in what police described as a suspicious manner. As officers got out to question him, police said, Gray turned around and pointed a .38-caliber revolver at them. In return, they fired seven shots, hitting the teenager. He was pronounced dead shortly after at Kings County Hospital Center.

“They slaughtered my son,” Carol Gray said. “To this day I still want to know why seven times.”

Hoping to avert such confrontations, community organizations and parents of African-American youth are taking it upon themselves to teach young people how to conduct themselves during interactions with police officers.


Mayor Bill de Blasio drew a strong reaction last December for saying that he and his wife “had to literally train” their biracial son Dante how to handle encounters with police—the president of the largest police union said he
threw cops “under the bus.” But the experience de Blasio described is shared by parents of African-American children in New York City and around the country.

Parents and activists around New York City are joining together to teach children and young adults of color on how to respond to the police when stopped. Experts hold workshops for youths on safe behavior during police interactions, trying to help them see the “what-ifs” that can be the outcome of hostile encounters. Many parents of African-American and Latino believe it is essential training, especially where there are high crime rates and heavy handed policing.

“Young adults of color need to know what to do when stopped by a police officer,” said Officer Dave Wilson, an African-American cop who works at the 73rd Precinct in Brownsville. “We cannot allow our children to be ignorant.”

Manny Bennett, 45, a single father who lives in East New York, says his 16-year-old son and group of friends get questioned by officers while walking home from school at least once a week. He tries his best as a parent to teach his son the right things to say.

“I tell him to stay calm and still,” Bennett said. “I know that they’re cutting down on the stop-and-frisk program, but I know that as long as his skin is darkened, there will always be a target on his back.”

Noel Leader, a cofounder of the police fraternal group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, believes his organization can have a big impact on the way youths view New York City’s Finest. “They have to initially understand that not all cops are out to get them,” said Leader. “Many officers are just trying to make it as safe for them, as they are for their mothers, sisters and brothers.”

De Blasio’s views on the matter led to a heated war of words with Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch, following a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict an officer in the death of Eric Garner. Lynch said the mayor needs to do more to support New York City cops.

“What police officers felt yesterday after that press conference is that they were thrown under the bus,” Lynch told reporters. “That they were out there doing a difficult job in the middle of the night, protecting the rights of those to protest, protecting our sons and daughters and the mayor was behind microphones throwing them under the bus.”

Facing heat from the police union, de Blasio has stood by his comments that his biracial son needs to take special precautions around cops.

“What parents have done for decades who have children of color, especially young men of color, is train them to be very careful when they have a connection with a police officer,” de Blasio said.

“It’s different for a white child. That’s just the reality in this country,” de Blasio continued. “And with Dante, very early on with my son, we said, look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do, don’t move suddenly, don’t reach for your cell phone, because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.”

Brooklyn College Professor Alex Vitale discusses conflict between PBA and mayor.(Priscilla Ferreras)

Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College who researches social movements, said he believes the mayor’s comments were intended to send a message to African-Americans about heavy-handed policing. “The reality is that the risk for young black men’s interactions with the police is much greater than they are for other members of the community,” Vitale said. “So I don’t think the intention was to throw the NYPD under the bus, but to reach out to the African-American community and let them know the political leadership of New York City takes the problems of excessive policing very seriously.”

According to New York Civil Liberties Union, stop-and-frisk has continued on a smaller scale following a 2013 ruling in which U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin found the Bloomberg administration’s broadbrush approach to be unconstitutional. In 2014, under the de Blasio administration, police stopped and frisked 24,777 African Americans, mostly youth.

And so parents and community organizations are continuing the effort to teach young people about how to interact with police.

“It starts with first educating them on what their rights are as a person in society,” said Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, an organization that mentors African-American youths and also maintains the ability to respond rapidly – through direct action and media commentary – to issues and police actions that affect members of the Central Brooklyn community. “We mentor youths on how not to provoke the police and remind them to refuse to give the police an excuse to harm them.”

Activist Mark Winston Griffith speaks of teaching youth how to interact with police.(Priscilla Ferreras)

As a parent also, he shares some common ground with the mayor. He said he finds it hard to counsel his children about dealing with police. “After all they are there to protect us,” said Griffith, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant. His kids are only 12 and 13 years old, but whenever a cop has pulled over their dad in a car, he says they have a sense that they are being targeted.

“It starts with telling youths to understand that they are in a potentially violent situation. Know what you’re allowed to do, and do what’s necessary to keep yourself safe. Also, to be aware that any verbal or physical actions on their part could possibly end in an altercation with the cops.”

One of the witnesses to the shooting of Kimani told Carol Gray that her son was only fixing his belt. Gray said she never knew her son to own a gun. His sister, Mahnefah Stone, 19, who was close to her son, said she never knew him to own such a weapon.

“Even if he did have one that night, he wouldn’t of point it at the cops,” Stone said. “I know my brother; he had common sense.”

The medical examiner said Kimani was shot seven times, and that he had two wounds in his torso and three in the back of his body, which Carol Gray said indicates he had turned and tried to run away.

“My point as a mother is regardless if you even suspect that he has a gun, one shot was enough. Not so many,” Gray said. “The neighbor said Kimani was crying for his life. He was like ‘Okay, you got me. You got me. I don’t want to die. Don’t kill me.’ ”

Hoping to prevent violent confrontations,100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a group of African Americans from a variety of professions within the field of law enforcement, has launched community workshops.

Vernon C. Wells, a co-founder of the group and former police officer, holds a monthly workshop called “What to Do when Stopped by the Police.” About 50 minority youths attended the March workshop, which discussed car stops, various types of warrants, what rights they have and more. Wells used another member of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement to demonstrate how the youths can respond to police and respectfully express themselves. One by one, boys and girls went up to the front to participate in a scenario of being stopped by an officer. Pamphlets were handed out as a guideline of their rights and what to do if they ultimately get arrested.

A youth slowly raised his hand and asked a question that isn’t the easiest to answer. “What do we do if a cop has a nasty attitude with us?” asked Keyon Green, 17, a high school junior.

“Continue to be calm and easy-going. Every action will bring out a reaction,” Wells said

“Don’t let them put fear in your heart.” Stoned-faced as he looked around the classroom. He added: “Your life matters.”

Steps towards improvement of police-youth interactions are being taken by a few within te Police Department.

Simone Weichselbaum, a staff writer at the Marshall Project who has spent more than a decade covering urban criminal justice issues, said in an interview that she has done several stories on raising awareness of policing and community interactions.

“I got the opportunity to speak to black commanders in the NYPD a few months ago about police interactions with minorities,” said Weichselbaum. “One commander told me how he planned to send officers to high schools in New York to speak to teens about how to interact with cops.”

The program is called Strategies for Youth, in which police officers go to high schools all over the city and give teens tools for navigating calm, unprovoked interactions with the police. Overall, the organization is dedicated to improving police/youth interactions through community engagement, outreach programs for youth, and proactive use of multi-disciplinary approaches to problem-solve and build relationships between police and youth.

According to a Malcom X Grassroots Movement analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings, police officers in the United States killed at least 313 African Americans in 2012. Since there are 8,760 hours in a year, this means a black person was killed by an officer every 28 hours.

Abby Ramos, a mother whose 18-year-old African American son was fatally shot in April 2013, in Kissimme, Florida on the I-95 highway during a car search conducted by the police due to a verbal dispute that escalated, says she works with The Stolen Lives Project so that her son’s death will not be in vain.

“I use my child’s experience to raise experience for other parents who’ve endured my struggle,” Ramos said as she attended an East Flatbush vigil honoring Kimani in March. “Parents need to have a raised awareness of every cop interaction because any can happen during these scenarios.”

Carol Gray also works for the Stolen Lives Project as part of the effort to keep children of color safe in their interactions with police.

“I believe it’s a two-way street,” Gray said as she looked out her window nostalgically in her two-family home in East Flatbush. “Both actions between the cops and African-American youths must be calm and non-threatening in order for interactions to be safely executed.”

The community vigil Gray held in March marked two years since the slaying of her son.

“The past couple of months, the bell hasn’t rung,” she said. “I’m still waiting for him to come home.”

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