Black teens: Recalling being guilty by suspicion


July 28, 1996|By Norris West

THEY WERE typical teen-agers. Five African-American boys crossing an Oakland Mills street together on a glorious Sunday afternoon.

They must have been 14 and 15, maybe 16. A couple of them wore baggy pants. At least one had a '90s Afro hairstyle.

These boys were in sight for only a few seconds, fading into the bland suburban landscape as I turned the car north onto Thunderhill Road. But they remained on our minds for some time.

More than likely, my wife and I concluded, these boys are being raised in middle-class homes in Columbia and were simply taking a stroll through their neighborhood on a perfect summer day. Their appearance didn't bother me one bit. I have no problem as long as their pants aren't drooping below their waists.

But we also wondered how many people would presume them guilty of something simply because five African-American boys were associating.

I speak from a degree of experience in this matter, having been perceived this way.

No, I never had the baggy pants to go along with my Afro -- '70s-style -- but more than once my presence has compelled women to become more attached to their purses, guards have followed me through aisles and police officers have pulled me over. To police, I looked suspicious simply because I was a black teen driving a car.

I still get followed in stores from time to time when dressed casually. I simply ignore the guards. Discussing the five Oakland Mills youths brought the realization that it won't be long before this scenario might play out all over again with the next generation.

The drill

Our own two sons, 13 and 14, look saintly in the outdated pictures on my desk. But what happens if they're with a few of their friends? Will the faces that seem angelic to us appear dangerous to strangers? We're two years away from having another driver's license in the house. Will our boys endure not-so-routine stops?

They've already been drilled on how to respond if ever stopped by an officer. We repeat the basics periodically -- be courteous, follow the officer's instructions and don't make any sudden moves.

Fear of the young, particularly young black males, stems from concern about rising crime. Sure, Columbia residents have good reason to be concerned about crime, especially in the villages of Long Reach, Oakland Mills and Town Center, where Howard County police have assigned uniformed and plainclothes officers for 10 weeks to repel robberies.

The number of incidents rose from 84 in the first six months of 1995 to 116 in only the first five months of this year, police say. Officials don't keep crime statistics by individual villages but they say a rash of armed robberies have hit the three areas due for patrols. In one instance, a driver was shot July 12 during a robbery at the Pizz-A-Boli's restaurant on Oakland Mills Road.

The police announcement of its so-called Robbery Suppression Program to fight rising crime gained headlines and made a splash on television news. Police need to crack down on crime to keep the problem from getting out of hand. But something about this program bothers me.

According to Sgt. Morris Carroll, of the police's community services section, officers and community leaders would work together to compile reports on "suspicious people."

Upon reading this, my thoughts returned to the five kids on Thunderhill Road and my own boys. Would the sight of them walking through a neighborhood be enough to draw suspicion?

Nothing new

This would be nothing new.

The perception about crime in Columbia is almost as old as the 29-year-old planned city itself. A story with the headline, "Columbia Grows, So Do Crimes," ran in The Sun -- on July 12, 1972.

The story told of how the town of 21,000 residents was struggling with the fear of crime as much as crime itself.

A police official at that time cautioned against viewing young people as villains, saying, "The chief problem is probably the fear their presence gives people rather than the amount of crime they commit."

Nearly a quarter-century later, Sgt. Kevin Burnett, who works with high school students in another police department program, said black youths in Howard County are unfairly scrutinized too often.

"Ninety percent of the kids are good kids. About 10 percent of the kids have some problems," Sergeant Burnett said. "You've got a lot of people who don't have exposure to these kids and the only perception of them is what they see on the news."

Columbia remains a relatively safe community where some residents still leave their doors unlocked in the daytime. It has a degree of juvenile crime -- but these crimes are committed by white and black kids.

So the five Oakland Mills kids get the benefit of the doubt from me, and I hope residents of the three villages won't view them with suspicion just because they are black kids.

I used to be one of them.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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