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Let's Talk This Out: Teens Get Candid With Cops

Diego Saldana-Rojas

The recent protests in Baltimore are the latest in a series of events that have strained the country’s relationship with police.

In South Florida, a new program is sparking conversation between Miami-Dade police officers and teenagers from the neighborhoods they patrol.

Sarah Odio works for Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez. Odio realized something while watching the recent unrest across the country involving police brutality.

“There is an entire segment of our population that does not feel protected by the people that they are, through their taxes, paying to protect them,” said Odio.

She then thought up the idea of coordinating dialog between local cops and teenagers from low-income neighborhoods.

She partnered up with Antoine Hardy. He teaches communications at Florida International University and moderates the conversations.

“We didn’t want it to be like, 'tell the cops everything you hate about them' or the cops to be like, 'tell us what you hate about dealing with these kids.' It’s more so, 'Do we have common ground?’” said Hardy.

At first, many of the police officers didn’t know what to expect.

“When we first walked in we had no clue that we would literally be cops and teenagers,” said Officer Mercy Rodriguez. She has been to all three of the meetings held so far.

“It was very real, being in a conversation with them and seeing what their views are,” said Rodriguez.

Another officer, William Baskins, was pleasantly surprised.

“I didn’t expect so much understanding from the children at the table and the amount of respect that they do have for our job,” said Baskins.

Credit Diego Saldana-Rojas
FIU Professor Antoine Hardy moderates the discussion between a group of teens and cops at the Government Center in Downtown Miami.

Kiara Lavine is part of Miami-Dade County’s teen court program.

She says most of her peers have positive feelings toward police. But finds herself pulled in the other direction at home.

“Teens have actually been on the side of the officers and have spoken to kids like 'violence isn’t the answer.' But on the other spectrum in my home life and in my community rather than my school, it’s been 'we don’t know all the details, the officers aren’t being transparent, there’s something there,’” said Lavine. “So in my school there’s certainty, and in my home there’s doubt.”

Some of the teens wish officers would be more proactive in the communities they patrol.

Recently bullets shot through Shemar Lewis’ living room in Brownsville and nearly hit him. He immediately called the police.

“They asked me what school I went to, really start trying to start conversation so I just felt like that’s what they needed to do beforehand,” said Lewis. “They shouldn’t wait till an incident happens. They wanna come and then ask and check up on us and stuff like that. They should do that from the get go. “

Some of the issues brought up have to do with officer procedure. Teens had questions about gun laws and why people get put in jail for minor crimes.

“A lot of it is beyond the police. This comes from whether it’s federal policy, state or local,” said Odio.

Odio believes that elected officials should be a part of these talks as well.

Credit Diego Saldana-Rojas
Police officers listen as one teen shares his point of view at the Government Center in Downtown Miami.

“We would like them to come and listen and see what the police officers and the teens have to say about the policies that are affecting their neighborhoods,” said Odio.

After three meetings, Hardy sees some progress. He says the officers are beginning to let down their guard and are trying to engage more with the teens. 

“I don’t know if we’re gonna come up with mind-blowing solutions, but I think it’s just a good step in the right direction,” said Hardy.

There’s one more talk left in the series on May 27.

Beyond that, Miami-Dade police are in the process of incorporating these talks into their academy training.  

Juan Perez is the deputy director for the Miami-Dade Police Department.

“There we can bring in kids into the academy class, introduce themselves and maybe even have some time to meet the officers that will be patrolling their streets,” said Perez.

The department will implement the talks into their academy as soon as this summer.