Youth shall be served—by youths who serve
A police commission whose members are not yet out of high school? It’s a typographical error, right?
Wrong. The Board of Young Adult Police Commissioners, a program in New Haven, Conn., with a track record of forging closer ties between police and teen-agers while urging youths to work for change in their communities, began its fifth year of operation this fall.
The board, which includes 22 students of diverse backgrounds from six public high schools and two parochial schools, has been involved in a variety of issues and not always taking positions that would find them in the public-safety mainstream, including successfully leading opposition to a citywide curfew and a ban on metal detectors in high school.
The board also campaigned for more treatment facilities for youths with drug and alcohol problems, and raised funds to provide hospice care for adolescent AIDS patients. It also has interviewed about 175 new recruits to the New Haven Department of Police Service to gauge their attitudes about youths. Only one of the recruits did not pass muster; he was ordered back to the academy for more diversity and sensitivity training.
The board came into being in 1991, when city officials, at the urging of Police Chief Nicholas Pastore, agreed to establish the all-volunteer panel aimed at the city’s youths. Pastore devised the proposal after touring city schools shortly after he was sworn in and became alarmed by the hostility and anger many students expressed toward police officers, said Det. Thomas Morrissey Jr., who serves as the department’s Community Youth coordinator.
The commissioners are elected by fellow students at all six public high schools, with two members from each of the city’s eight police districts. The remaining members are nominated by city commissioners, and approved by sitting BYAPC members, Morrissey said, who added that commissioners remain in office throughout their high school years, until the summer following graduation.
They meet at least once a month, in an office used by the city’s Board of Police Commissioners, just down the hall from Pastore’s office, he added.
Members must have the consent of their parents in order to serve on the board, Morrissey said. “Parents’ relationships are essential because if they think what we’re doing is taking up too much of the youngsters’ time and isn’t productive, that child won’t be coming back and we know that. It’s essential for us to have the trust and involvement of the parents, and we have that. That’s clearly one of the reasons why this is successful.”
The young commissioners can be removed from the board by school officials if it is felt that they are not properly representing their school. The commissioners cannot miss more than three meetings in a row or three meetings in a five-month period, Morrissey said. “Over five years, only five commissioners have been removed from the board by the commissioners for what they felt was a lack of commitment,” he noted.
The board’s first year was a rocky one, Morrissey recalled, with the resignations of several youths whose board work conflicted with their after-school jobs, academic work or for whom peer pressure proved too much for them to bear.
“Some left because they were accused [by other students] of being stool pigeons or 5-0s,” Morrissey told Law Enforcement News. “None of this is about that, and I tried to explain that to them, but we didn’t have a track record yet. We hadn’t had a chance to prove ourselves.”
That misperception has since fallen by the wayside, said Morrissey. “Without a doubt, they’ve had an effect on the attitudes of youth in general toward police,” he said. “When you have 11 students in a predominantly minority high school run for positions on the board, when in 1991 I couldn’t get two kids to run against each other for a spot, that says a lot about how far we’ve progressed.”
“It has begun to bridge the gap between teen-agers and police officers in our city,” added the board’s current president, Natalie Guerrier, a 17-year-old senior from Wilbur Cross High School who plans to attend Harvard. “We try to let people know the opinions of police that are held by teen-agers are not necessarily the right ones to have. We speak a lot to our peers about that…. They’re not as willing to brand every police officer badly. There are still stereotypes both ways, but it is getting better.”
Guerrier added that reactions by police officers to the board have also been positive. “They support us and we support them. Police officers I’ve come into contact with who know who we are don’t seem to have a problem with us. We’ve been impressed with just about every police recruit that we’ve interviewed,” she said.
Morrissey said the group has emerged as a pool of hard-working youths who have earned a reputation for fairness and who have exhibited strong leadership potential and a level of influence that has been felt throughout Connecticut.
The board’s reputation has extended to the national arena as well, Morrissey added. In 1994, two former board members, including its president, Augusto Rodriguez from Career High School, and vice president, Michele Edwards from Wilbur Cross High School, were chosen by the U.S. Department of Education to be presenters at a Justice Department-sponsored conference called “Solving Youth Violence: Partnerships That Work.”
It was at the conference that the two students met the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who spoke to them about the importance of Federal crime legislation then being considered by Congress. The youth board went on to play a key role in lobbying members of Connecticut’s Congressional delegation to support the measure.
In October, Guerrier introduced Mrs. Clinton when she came to New Haven to give a speech on behalf of the President’s re-election campaign a speech in which she cited the board as a national model for youths wanting to get involved in their communities. “That was probably my most exciting opportunity on the board, getting to meet the First Lady,” she said.
As this issue of LEN was going to press, Guerrier and the board’s secretary, Sherrie Amos, were preparing to travel to Zion, Ill., to meet with officials about the possibility of setting up a similar program there.
“This will be a first for us,” said Morrissey, who added that he was puzzled as to why no other jurisdictions have attempted to replicate the program. “We’re more than willing to give this program away, and we’re convinced it can work equally well in other communities, as it has in New Haven.”
Morrissey said the program has virtually no costs and the group does not delve into internal police matters. “The purpose is to empower and include youth in the decision-making process in the community,” he said. “The more young people who are convinced they have the power to influence decisions, the more opportunity there is for young people to engage themselves and their peers in these solutions. Personally, I think this is an answer to a question that hasn’t been properly explored.”