Black and white, or shades of gray?

February 23, 1994

Seven black male middle schoolers, ages 11 to 13, were detained earlier this month by Howard County police after a female acquaintance charged them with theft.

The youths, or at least some of them, claim that the girl gave them the money willingly. The amount was $3 or $4, depending on whose story you believe.

The particulars, however, have taken a back seat to the actions of the adults involved. Parents of the boys have secured the backing of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and are asking why the youths were detained so long (the parents say it was two hours, the police say 40 minutes) without the parents being notified. The parents see the incident as being racially motivated.

The officers who detained the boys are white, which, unfortunately, is basis enough for some to make a case. To make matters worse, police have taken a defensive posture, at first refusing to release the names of the officers.

The fact that departments typically release the names of officers involved in killing a suspect makes the stance of Howard's police seem hypersensitive for such a minor incident. Both sides have descended to the bunkers and the result has been more damage than dialogue.

But none of this has occurred in a vacuum. African-Americans need not look far back in history to know that being victimized by police officers was once a common occurance. Some believe that such victimization continues. With that backdrop, black parents wonder whether they side with the police, or with their children when they doubt that police have acted fairly? Too often -- and this is not unique to blacks -- parents side with their children even when the evidence suggests something afoul.

Keep in mind that two of the seven boys were charged with theft, while the others were not. Youths, regardless of their race, should be counseled firmly by their parents on the seriousness of alleged criminal activity, as well as cautioned about the company they keep.

It's disturbing when parents seem more concerned with pointing fingers at the authorities than with ensuring that they've sent a strong message about proper behavior to their children. The county police, meanwhile, need to deal openly with this issue. Their current posture raises suspicions that should not be ignored.

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