Setting the stage for reconciliation Police, black youth role-play at retreat

June 14, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

WOODLAWN -- The cop barked the orders and the four black teen-agers followed; they got out of the car one by one, put their hands in the air and dropped to their knees on the pavement.

"KEEP YOUR HANDS UP WHERE I CAN SEE THEM," Baltimore County Officer Jeff Sewell shouted, as his partner held a gun on the suspects. "KEEP YOUR HANDS UP."

The youngsters were innocent. They were just on their way to the ballgame when they saw the blue lights behind and heard the siren. Now their car was being searched, and they were suspected of armed robbery, as their car fit the description of the getaway car.

It happened yesterday on the Woodlawn Senior High School campus, where a 19-year-old black man was shot to death by a Baltimore County police officer last fall.

This time, however, the officer and the youngsters were just playing roles. It was part of what the Baltimore County police called a Community Youth Retreat Weekend, a time for two hostile camps to try to understand one another.

From Friday evening through yesterday afternoon at the high school, about 100 black youngsters and 50 police officers and counselors broke up into small groups to play basketball, talk, and act out some of the police-citizen confrontations that can lead to violence or death for young black men.

And through the weekend, the police heard kids ask again and again: Why are we always targeted by the police? Why can't we stand on a street corner, walk down our own block without being stopped or questioned, without having a police cruiser spotlight shot into our eyes?

"They feel they're being harassed," said Officer Sewell, who is black.

"A lot of [police action] is questionable to them. Why they were being stopped. After doing some of the exercises, they see the positions we were being put in."

Well, some did and some did not.

The role-playing did little to appease Warren Hart, 14, of Randallstown, who questioned why police seem to presume black kids are guilty.

"I was walking down my street at 10 p.m., my own street," said Warren, who acknowledged several run-ins with police. "A cop stopped me, put that big beam in my face. He stopped me. He said somebody's been breaking windows in my neighborhood."

After playing both police officer and suspect in the armed robbery exercise, Brett Taylor, 14, of Woodlawn, said, "I respect police officers more.Well, I can respect the fact that they're not always so forceful. They can be nice sometimes. It's making me think that not all police officers are like the ones in L.A."

At the same time, he said being ordered out of the car "felt like it was an invasion of my privacy. I felt like my pride was being violated. We weren't committing any harm to anybody. . . . They ordered you to do stuff. They could have asked you."

Officer Bob Speed told Brett that when facing suspects who may be armed, the police officer's first concern is his own safety. Decisions must be made quickly, firmly, he said.

Decisions made by a police officer in the heat of a pursuit led to the death of 19-year-old Sadiq A. Martin on the morning of last Sept. 23, just a few yards from where Officer Speed spoke to the group.

With a passenger suspected of burglarizing a car, Mr. Martin fled Baltimore County police patrol cars. The police said Mr. Martin was driving right at Officer Timothy Mitchem when the officer drew his revolver and fired six times, striking Mr. Martin once in the chest.

A grand jury in October found the shooting justified, but the incident had touched off anger and protests in the neighborhood.

In February, the Rev. Dr. Emmett Burns of the Rising Sun First Baptist Church of Woodlawn called Baltimore County Police Chief Cornelius J. Behan to suggest a retreat for police and black youth.

"There had to be a better way to bring the community together than to be angry," Mr. Burns said yesterday in closing remarks to the entire group.

He said some of the things he learned about police work over the weekend were "a revelation to me." Still, he said, "Sometimes police can overplay their role. The solution to that is education."

By yesterday afternoon, however, it was clear that the road to understanding will be longer for some than others.

Kyle Anderson, a 12-year-old from Woodlawn, said his opinion of police was unchanged by the retreat.

"I just plain don't like them. They go after all the little people, they go after the pawns," Kyle said. "The black people on the street, they get arrested for doing the drugs, but the white man in the office who's shipping them in, he never gets arrested."

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