New Haven students want police to “See Me” and not stereotypes

From the New Haven Register:

NEW HAVEN >> Ariana Ellis didn’t know why she was being stopped by an officer downtown, but within moments, the officer flipped her bike over to read the serial number.

“He asked me to flip my bike over, and before I could ask why, he was already flipping my bike over,” she said.

The bike was a gift from her mother and her prized possession at the time.

“When he heard back from (the) radio that the bike was indeed mine, he told me how lucky I was that I wasn’t getting arrested that day,” she said.

Ellis, a junior and member of High School in the Community’s Prison Project, spoke of her first interaction with police to a room of new recruits at the New Haven Police Academy Wednesday.

Prison Project is a first-year, student-inspired group at HSC dedicated to improving the relationship between police and city youth. The group visited recruits Wednesday to present results of a year-long study into the quality of that relationship, and to offer personal stories and recommendations for improvement.

The group surveyed 383 students from HSC and James Hillhouse High School about their relationships with police and the prison system. Educators Matt Presser, Sarah Marchesi and Jessica Vandervoort oversaw the students’ research but credited students with the bulk of the work.

Of those surveyed, 80 percent responded they know someone in the prison system, and 59 percent reported they’ve witnessed an officer being “disrespectful.”

“Our relationships with police do matter, as it affects the rest of our life,” said Reaiah Rutherford, an HSC freshman.

“Teens that feel comfortable with the police will be less likely to handle conflict on their own, and if we trusted the police officers, we’d be less likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct, which is often considered a gateway offense,” she said.

The survey results showed 13 percent of respondents feel “mostly positive” about police, 42 percent feel “somewhat positive” and 24 percent feel “somewhat negative.” The remaining 21 percent reported feeling “mostly negative” toward local law enforcement.

Project members said they believe if they can convert people who are on the negative margin, the incarceration rate of adolescents will drop. Rutherford said the members agree the so-called prison pipeline starts with the interaction between youth and officers.

The group launched a “‘See Me’ campaign: See me for who I am, and we’ll see you for who you are.” The students vowed to wear “See Me” buttons, committing themselves to that practice, and offered buttons to recruits with hopes they would follow.

“A lot of our peers have been stereotyped by cops and we know we don’t like how that feels, but we also know all cops don’t like to be stereotyped,” Rutherford said.

Members also proposed including legal rights courses in the schools and requiring new recruits to have a character recommendation from a teenager to ensure youth would be comfortable with the incoming officers who one day will have walking beats.

Sgt. Robert Maturo said he liked the idea of legal rights courses and thanked the students for their research. He shared his own history as a school resource officer and a patrol officer.

“Somewhere between 8 years old and 10 years old, I lost them,” he said.

Recruit Paul Vitale suggested members of the group invite officers and recruits to engage in activities such as basketball. Vitale suggested having officers interact with youth in plain clothes before disclosing their identity to avoid negative stereotypes youth hold about police.

The students outlined the importance of a strong relationship between police and youth by offering personal stories, good and bad.

Junior Destinee Wilson said a relative had been involved with law enforcement since he was 8, but if it weren’t for police, she believes he could have ended up dead or in jail.

“Good or bad, I’ll admit, the police always was there for (him),” she said.

Wilson said he is now on track and heading to a new school.

“And that’s the thought I wanted to leave with you, how you have the power to influence us, the youth,” she said.

Referencing a recent Law Street Media ranking of New Haven as one of the most dangerous cities in the country, Corena Hamilton told officers, “don’t stereotype New Haven kids.” Some of the officers, she acknowledged, are from out of state. (law enforcement officials and others say such rankings should not be believed.)

“Get to know those kids,” Hamilton said. “You don’t know where they came from; you don’t know where they’re coming from more importantly.”

Hamilton said officers can serve as mentors to students because there are youth who may have incarcerated parents and, “that’s all they know.”

“Mentor these kids to make them feel like they are something, like they can do something with their lives,” she said.

Call Rachel Chinapen at 203-789-5714. have questions, feedback or ideas about our news coverage? Connect directly with New Haven Register editors at AskTheRegister.com