U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was recently in Miami as part of her nationwide community policing tour.
During her visit to highlight initiatives that are strengthening community and police relationships, Lynch hosted a youth town hall at Overtown’s Booker T. Washington Senior High School.
“Let me tell you why I’m here in Miami. I came because of you,” she told the packed auditorium full of students and police officers.
Many of the students in the audience were “peace ambassadors” — a program between Miami-Dade public high schools and the U.S. Attorney’s Office that encourages youth leaders to tackle civic and social issues.
Lynch told the students they are instrumental in bridging the gap between the police and teens.
When the town hall ended, the officers and teens in the room—unprompted—started working on that divide. They huddled in small groups around the auditorium talking about police policies, stereotypes and their own experiences.
Julio Burgos, a student at Miami Central High, introduced himself to Miami Officer Moise Joseph.
Julio hesitantly held out his hand.
“Thank you for everything,” Julio said.
Joseph smiled and grasped the teen’s hand in a firm handshake
“When you see us, don’t be afraid to talk to us,” Joseph said. “We gonna talk back.”
About five Central students stood around Joseph as he talked about how police are perceived.
“A person’s first encounter is very crucial. Whatever I leave you with, that’s what you’re gonna remember,” Joseph said. “ If it was good, you’re gonna remember. If it was bad, you’ll never forget.”
Joseph said he knows there are many reasons why young people don’t like the police, but he encouraged the teens to not let negative interactions with a few officers shape how they view all police officers.
Contrea Faison, another Central student, told Joseph she has conflicted feelings about the police.
“My first encounter was a police taking my dad,” she said. “Ya’ll took my dad for 13 years. I was mad.”
Then she adds, she met one police officer she thought was nice to her.
“I don’t like y'all, but I like y'all,” she said.
Officer Joseph told her that’s normal, and that from this conversation she can add another positive encounter with a police officer.
In his own department and around the country, Joseph said, there’s a shift happening in how law enforcement officers interact with communities.
Policing is moving away from riding around in squad cars with windows rolled up and heavily armed tactical teams, better known as “jump-out boys,” in some neighborhoods.
“Now it’s about community policing, for us to be out there interacting,” said Joseph. “Now it’s time for us to get out of the car [and] come talk to you guys: ‘ Hey, what’s going on? How is everything?’”
Nearby, another conversation was taking place.
A group of Booker T. Washington students were speaking with Officer Alfredo Ramirez, who works for the Miami-Dade County Police Department
One student asked him about how he feels knowing that some teens are scared of him because he’s a police officer.
“I don’t like that,” said Ramirez. “That hurts me real bad.”
He described his day-to day duties and told the students that police officers help in all different types of situations that don’t normally make the news.
“You put on that hat, you’re a social worker,” he said.
Ezekiel Hobbs, a Booker T student, stood back listening.
After Ramirez left, Ezekiel said he was not totally sold.
“My perception of police is that I don’t really like police as much,” Ezekiel said.
A few weeks ago, Ezekiel and his friend were walking to a park when he said they were stopped by police officers.
Ezekiel asked why were being stopped.
“They were like cause my friend had a hoodie on his head,” he said.
Ezekiel said he thinks they were stopped for walking while black.
“Stereotypes play a big role in our communities. Like if you see a black dude you think he’s a robber or done something bad,” said Ezekiel. "I just want the stereotypes to stop.”