Tag Archives: criminalization

Sometimes a wrong calls for consequences and not criminalization

Sunday, June 4, around 8:10pm I entered the booking room of Sacramento County Juvenile Hall with a police officer, a good kid, and a load of emotion.  I was doing a Ride-Along in Del Paso Heights with the Sacramento Police Department.  There would be a roll call with an interesting trivia question and an insightful briefing and interactions to prepare officers to patrol.  Once on the beat, we had a couple relatively minor calls with serious situations to those involved but not too serious in general.  Then we joined a call where four people were already detained at an elementary school following an alarm going off.  When we arrived, four young boys sat on the ground as two officers stood nearby and someone resembling a school janitor sat on a bench out of the way with a large set of keys in hand.  Two of the kids appeared to be about the age of my eleven and a half year old son while  the other two could pass for fifteen or sixteen.  The officers were waiting for CSI to come take fingerprints and attempting to get parent information from the boys.  The kids and officers had already been there for a while when I arrived.  The call came in while I was with two officers who did an excellent job of facilitating an unfortunate and potentially volatile situation with a family who was duped into illegally subleasing and facing an imminent eviction.

 

When we arrived, the kids and officers were calm and one of the officers was joking about the sprint the other had to make to corral the kids who apparently ran upon encountering the police officers.  There was also conversation initiated by the officers seemingly to relieve some of the fear and stress the kids might have been experiencing during this moment.  I stood leaning against a pole looking at the kids and flashing back to similar situations I was involved with from my childhood.  I was appreciating the kids were taking the situation serious while also comfortable enough to interact with each other and the officers.  After standing and listening a bit, I actually sat on the ground with them to be on the same physical level as we talked about them, school, friendships, my kids, sports, and more.  Following attempts to confirm guardian information and make contact, eventually officers came over to take each of the boys for separate one-on-one conversations on what happened.

 

From the discussions with the children, the officers gathered that allegedly the boys went into the Library and one of the children (13 year old) purportedly planned to take an iPad but put it back and all of the boys exited the building without removing property.  According to the officers this was a 459 offense which per Wikipedia is, “Burglary…an unlawful entry into a building or other location for the purposes of committing an offence.”  This was explained as a felony.  As a Ride-Along, the officer I accompanied took the time to explain to me what was going on.  The officers were of the thinking that the child was 14 years old versus 13 years old.  I noted the incorrect age and hoped this would be sufficient to have him released to his guardians as there are cases where being fourteen carries more weight than thirteen.  I pled with the officer to have another discussion with his superiors and personally pledged to serve in whatever capacity necessary to support this child during and after this situation with the hopes he would not go to juvenile hall.  The incident and consequence was escalated and determined that the child had to be taken to juvenile hall.

 

My mind was very focused on the damage that was being done in this situation and the innocence of this child.  When I was sitting on the ground speaking with the kids, this child in particular stood out with his manners and willingness to engage with me and the officers.  Whether it was noting that his butt was hurting from the time sitting on the concrete and asking permission to stand, trying to understand whether I was an officer or not since I came with them, asking one of the officers “how long you been growing your mustache?” or pleading with me to say that he looked older than 11 or 12 because he was 13… The kid was a pleasure to be around without coming off as cocky nor dismissive of the gravity of the situation at hand.  This good kid was about to take his first ride in the back of a police car and to be booked in jail for minors.  When the officer asked the child to come talk to him that last time, it was obvious to me that that kid wouldn’t be seeing the others again that night and I got up and followed.  After being told by the officer he was about to be taken away the child was confused, shaken, tearful, and very afraid.  He spoke of his mom and consequences, he explained that he didn’t take anything, and he wanted it understood that he learned his lesson and nothing like this would ever happen again.  Despite his genuine sorrow and all other factors the officer had to take him.

 

To calm this young nervous soul, I interceded and talked him through the situation at hand and reassured him that everything would be okay as best I could in this awful situation.  The child eventually gathered himself and walked to the police car with me as I hugged him with one arm over his shoulders.  We spoke some as we rode and I was able to get phone numbers for parents and make calls.  At juvenile hall he was booked.  Paperwork filed, shoe laces removed, draw sting taken from pants, assessed by the nurse, clothing and personal property taken, and a full body search.  At one point while the officer filled out paperwork, the young man asked, “will they let me have a fidget spinner in here?”  He was sincere and it was obviously a tool of comfort that he sought to help him through whatever was soon to happen.

 

After leaving juvenile hall and returning to the police car, my words to the officer was “This is wrong.  At a time when cities and law enforcement say they want a better relationship with the Black community, this one incident has done far more harm than good.”  This lead to a very respectful, open and constructive conversation.  That conversation does nothing to help the current situation for that young man who was put in jail for that night.  I do expect it to resonate at least a bit when officer is back on his beat again.  The reality is that the officer did a good job of “policing.”  When it comes to the rules and procedures, I’m guessing it will be found that he and the other officers did everything accordingly.  However, I think a process that would lead to a child to being taken to a correctional facility after he took nothing, caused no obvious material damage, was prepared to apologize, and was honest throughout the process- seems to be criminal in itself.

 

Assuming the allegations are correct, my gut says this incident has taught all the kids that when you make a mistake (illegally entered and considered taking something), realize that you’ve done wrong (stop and put it down), and leave the premises that the full weight of the law will be thrown at you.  So run faster next time because you’re likely not to receive justice.  I can hear others countering me with “the kid broke the law and has to deal with the consequences.”  To me, these consequences create an antagonistic if not hostile response to law enforcement.  I also hear those that say, “they pretty much admitted guilt when they tried to run.”  I respect that view might be the case in many neighborhoods or for many others.  I also understand how that can be perceived that way and I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.  I too was likely to run until I was in my twenties and managed to get somewhat established with work and marriage to where my fear of what I could lose weighed heavier than my fear of what the police might do to me.  Living in an upper class neighborhood today versus my childhood, having a personal relationship with the senior police officers in my city and sitting on the Board for the Police Activities League, I still have to check myself and my instincts to flee for my survival or fight for my children at the thought or possible interaction with police.  Simply saying “they” need to learn not to run is counterproductive if you haven’t explored means the individual (police officer) and agencies (law enforcement) can engage with the community long before interaction occurs with the community.  It’s important to establish relationship and trust that can shift hundreds of years of fleeing for safety in these situations.  And there happens to be plenty of images that suggest maybe a Black man’s odds are better if you’re faster versus what might happen if you’re apprehended.

 

At the end of the night, the officer was encouraging me to come on another day to see how things play out.  He thought this incident may not have been a good example to take away.  I let him know this incident and the others we had (which are worth writing about) are exactly why I did the Ride-Along.  I plan to do more and I plan to encourage and expect the same from others in the community.  I let him know that I don’t like the outcome at all because my ultimate goal is to help bring about a positive relationship between law enforcement and the Black community.  This incident didn’t help that goal in my opinion.  I also let him know that I appreciated his listening to some of my tips throughout the day on going beyond just what’s expected to close  a call and look at means to help the person.  I sincerely appreciated his professionalism in his work.

 

My first priority out of this is supporting the young man along his path to success in life.  He was released Monday morning and is home truly facing the consequences of his actions.  He and I have an informal agreement that he’s going to be a future prosecutor.  I’ll be doing more Ride-Alongs.  I’ll be hosting events to bring together law enforcement with citizens who are wary of law enforcement to establish some respect, rapport, and understanding as we look at the ultimate goal of providing better solutions.  There’s many sides to this.  Please get involved and make difference.  There are lots of emotion, good kids and good police officers whom we need to encounter.20170607_030109_1

Addressing “isms” and Criminalization… Model, Teach, Practice, Reinforce

About three years ago I found myself having a conversation with an assistant principal at my son’s middle school. Jacob (now 17 year old junior in high school) was being suspended for a couple days for getting into a fight with another boy after reacting to the boy aggressively stating the word nigga toward Jacob after Jacob told the boy he found it offensive and had asked him to stop saying it while singing a rap song. For that incident both were suspended two days. I coached Jacob on using his words and avoiding violence while equally praising him for taking a stand for things of importance him. As much as anything, I was upset with how we give that word so much power while equally upset with how much a large swath of American society finds it acceptable to use the word or any of the derivations.

Fast forward to Friday, May 2, 2014, where I received a text from Jacob stating, “Something happened at school today I need to talk to you when you get home.” My stomach dropped. I then quickly stepped out of myself to view whatever it was from his perspective and decided he needed to know that he can trust to be honest with me and responded, “Okay” and “No matter what. I love you.” That was one of my biggest steps ever as a parent. I’m the authoritative dad who learned to lead with fear from my mom and my ancestors who largely learned from their slave roots. So I wrapped up what I was doing at the office and headed home… practicing my responses, pushing myself to ask open ended questions but not too many, seeking ways of being supportive and firm, and anything else I’ve failed in year’s past.

When I got home, Jacob was tucked away in his room as usual and made his way to my room to tell me what had happened. He told me of an incident on Thursday at lunch where a group of students opened a window/door to a room used by the Drama Club and how he and a group of friends came to see what they were doing. In the room were some cookies that could be reached of which the group goaded Jacob to take and he complied. After eating some cookies and giving some to his group of friends and the kids that opened the window, they moved on to their normal day. Apparently on Friday, there were more cookies to be taken and someone took cookies and left a note that chided the Drama Club and included the word “faggot” in reference to those involved with the work of the Drama Club.

My first two questions were, “Who wrote the note?” and “Do you know who wrote the note?” Then I think, “Oh shucks, I’m supposed to be helping him feel comfortable right now but I’m angry on so many levels, somebody help me!” He noted that the administrators think they know who wrote the note, it was not him, and the administrators insinuated that the person who is suspected actually attempted to blame the writing of the note on Jacob.

So then I shift from the note and seek to clarify if he took part in the opening of the room versus his involvement being specific to the taking of the cookies that he already admitted to. Needless to say I struggled to deal with any of the “feelings” until my mind was able to understand the facts behind what happened. So my questions continued to focus on the who, what, when, and where. He was adamant that he had nothing to do with opening the room though he failed to report seeing someone else doing it and he admits to wrongly going to the next step of removing the cookies. Anything beyond that, he says he wasn’t involved with. No letters, no visits to the room the next day, nothing. And I believed him, accompanied with several added questions to validate and triangulate.

Now I’m able to include a little of the feeling stuff. Why did you take the cookies? How did that feel? A few of those kind of questions came out and it was good to hear him talking and sharing more than stressed and responding. Some of my favorites are “how do you think I should deal with this” and “how do you feel about the consequences you’re already facing.” Essentially he thought enough consequences had been experienced and those he’s facing (five days of no school) were very fair. Pretty convenient situation from a teenager’s point of view. In the dialogue I was particularly interested to understand how he felt about being accused of writing the note, to understand the punishment levied on all involved with opening the room, and to understand the prime driver of the suspension – opening the room, taking the cookies, or the note. His belief was that his suspension was for the note and the fact that the note likely wouldn’t have occurred had he not taken the cookies. I simply failed to connect taking cookies or being an unknowing accessory to a note that he didn’t believe in to a consequence of five days of suspension. Interesting enough he noted that the administrators were also pursuing suspensions against the students who ate cookies and somehow used a guilty by association argument to justify this.

For his part, Jacob was pretty distraught about any connection to the note because he has a great deal of respect for the Drama Club. Actually as part of his leadership role on the school’s Media Club he frequently worked with the Drama Club. Coincidentally, he spent Wednesday night watching the production of Shrek because he was supposed to film the show on Friday night. Equally so, he was disappointed about giving in to peer pressure and how that manifested in demeaning the efforts and hard work of the Drama Club. I was hoping to hear more remorse about taking the cookies. After having a chance to marinate on this over the weekend, I’m also unsettled around the failure of action to use this as a teaching opportunity regarding the demeaning of others and the insensitive if not damaging words and intent of the note. Jacob doesn’t own that specific action individually, but we as a society do regardless of who the perpetrator was. Silence or lack of effective action is acceptance.

Towards the end of my and Jacob’s conversation, he gave me the letter from the school which took me back to a recent post I made regarding the criminalization of children. Sarcastically, I ponder if I should celebrate that this criminalization occurred in a mostly upper class neighborhood with virtually no socio-economic diversity and very few Blacks or Hispanics versus the usual scenario. After listing the Education Code, which seemingly has no relevance to Jacob’s actions, the letter goes on to state that “Student was involved with other students in the breaking and entering of a locked facility on campus of 5/1/14. Students also took part in leaving an inflammatory note with the word “faggot” written in it as well as taking and eating cookies…” Seeing the words “breaking and entering” in the letter were very frustrating as they directly reference criminal activity and the remainder of the note reminded me that I’m only hearing one side of the story from Jacob. With clear suggestion that he had more awareness and/or involvement with opening of the room and writing of the letter I had to find an approach of confirming his story in a non-threatening manner. Regardless of how low of a threshold it may be, I’m glad I avoided raising my voice, accusations, or any form of threat in the process of confirming his story yet again. My reality is that I was hoping to protect myself from being made a fool when questioning the school and their choice of discipline. I called the school to speak with the assistant principal, but she was gone for the day and this will linger at least until Monday.

In the meantime, I had Jacob call three men whom I love and respect so he could share the experience with them and hear their counsel. From that he heard that 1. They too were kids at one point in their lives and this too shall pass, and 2. Versus just saying sorry within an apology it is much more meaningful to spend time writing an apology to connect with his feelings and equally demonstrate the importance of the apology by investing time in communicating via written word. I like what he heard. I also thought back to my high school days and the incident that happened with Jacob in middle school. When I compare this to what I did in high school and even the fact that just a few years ago he got in a physical fight or assault for those whom choose to criminalize behaving like a child, I find it quite ridiculous for a five day suspension to be the consequence for taking some cookies and being an unknowing and un-supportive accessory to the writing of an unacceptable letter.

In fairness to the situation, I’m still operating with only Jacob’s perspective on the events mentioned. After a low-key Saturday so Jacob could study for an AP test this coming Monday, I had him call all the friends whose names he gave to the administration and I called all their parents to forewarn of potential action the school might also take for those who ate a cookie. If possible, I also wanted Jacob to be able to speak with the person that allegedly accused him of writing the letter as well as to the Media Club sponsor since Jacob was a no-show to film the Drama Club perform Shrek. In both cases, the goal was to gain understanding and to seek or extend forgiveness. I should add, aside from the phone calls to peers, Jacob also made calls to find means to earn money via manual labor with the money to be donated to the Drama Club. It’s these type of actions that I believe bring the necessary understanding, respect, and learning in such a situation versus criminalizing children and suspending them from school. I pray for our school administrators and teachers as the ask of them is high and I pray that my dealings with them tomorrow don’t reflect my current disappointment.

To the LGBT friends that I know and have yet to meet, I apologize for my past history in condoning the hate and ignorance within the note that some ill-informed child left associated with this incident. Unlike the “N” word, I’m not familiar with the usage being pervasive and normal in today’s music or society so there’s no excuse there. And in my case, I can honestly say that I used the “F” word frequent and without relent in my childhood and on to my time in the military. I didn’t begin to gain respect until building a friendship with lesbians in the US Air Force at the time and later to have a great friendship with a co-worker in Northern Colorado. It was in Greeley and Fort Collins that my exposure would grow to understand that my position of “at least gay people have the choice to choose to be gay or not” was at best rude and easily a pilfering of one’s soul. This was only stamped further being that I lived in Fort Collins when Matthew Shepard died there in October 1998. I realize my part in his death. Most important was reciprocating friendship to my good friend Jackie and the many other amazing people who accepted me as a human first.

The situation that Jacob is experiencing is a stark reminder of a step show that some friends and I did at our high school when I was in tenth grade. We reenacted the step show scene from the movie School Daze and aside from the reference of that word, we inserted “Drama” to replace “Gamma” since there were no fraternities in our high school. I’m smart enough to know there’s no connection to Jacob’s situation and my actions over 25 years ago, but I believe the same forces of hate and ignorance that struck us to think that step show was okay back then are still prevalent to allow some child to write the note at Granite Bay High School this past week. It’s also reminder of how disappointed I am that in choosing a place to live that is conveniently locate to my job and resources that are preferred for my family, I also am in a place where all too often “difference” is not discussable. Whether it be broad conversation along the lines of those needed by the young man that thought it was okay to aggressively say the “N” word in my son’s face because it was in a rap song, for the student to scribble the “F” word in reference to the Drama Club, or for my generation who still use both of those words and are probably too fearful to admit how they’ve used them, we need to be able to talk about it and be honest about it. And “we” means that there needs to be more people in the authoritative “majority” opening up and being an honest.

Jacob’s going to be okay and will learn from this- I’ll see to it. I fear those that need it most will not get the needed lessons and very likely be leading our companies of the future potentially without the lessons that were here to learn.  Stop criminalizing children and focus on setting examples, teaching lessons, and reinforcing their learning of critical life lessons that will build them to be great leaders of our future.