Youth And Police: The Dialogue Continues

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By Joi Smith/Youth Radio and Joseph Turner/Sergeant of Police Oakland Police Department

Over the past two weeks, protesters have been hitting the streets in Oakland in response to officer related shootings, and grand jury decisions not to indict them. In a report originally broadcast on NPR’s Morning Edition, Youth Radio’s 16-year-old reporter Joi Smith examines how young people and community leaders in Oakland are taking stock, and thinking about how to move forward.

Oakland has a long history of tensions between police and the community. So much, in fact, that the Oakland Police Department is under federal oversight for its use of force, and its reporting of misconduct, among other problems.Twenty-five-year-old Alex Sipp says it feels like there’s no end in sight. He says in his neighborhood, he notices resentment toward police starting at a young age. “I’ve heard little kids point out the police coming down the street, for no reason,” he said. “It’s almost like a sense of fear, like, ‘Uh oh, here they come,’ instead of ‘they’re here to protect me.’”We talked to Arnold Perkins, the former director of the Alameda County Department of Public Health, for the perspective of someone who was active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He said he understands why people are reacting and taking it to the streets. But he believes both protesters and police have to hear each other out. Perkins had been hoping for a more productive outcome to protests in Oakland.

“What would happen if the group would have marched down to the police station, and contacted the chief before, and said, ‘We wanted to sit down and have a conversation’?” Perkins went on, “We keep doing the same, tearing up our city. It leads us nowhere but more anger and more frustration.”

Olis Simmons is the founding CEO of East Oakland community organization Youth Uprising. She thinks Oakland can be a leader in raising a national dialogue about racial justice and relationships with police. “Holding young people who are at the epicenter of violence dearest to my heart has created a place where I’ve had to be in dialogue with the police department, about their leadership…about their oversight,” she said.

Simmons brings officers to East Oakland to speak to the youth. She said when police and community members meet face to face, it can start to break down the tension.

“It’s that ability to go beyond, ‘This is my job, this is my role, this is what society expects of me’ – to see each other more fully. I’m not as afraid for my life, or I don’t think that you’re going to just do me wrong. I know you more than your job, or your role in society,” she said.

One young staff member at Youth Uprising did recall a positive childhood memory of police. Twenty-four-year-old Kenneth Munson remembers a time when he was play-fighting with neighborhood friends. Local police officers gave Kenneth and his friends boxing gloves.

“An officer named Mr Daniels, he would just come and watch us. It wasn’t like he got into our business, he just showed he actually cared. I think that’s being bigger than a policeman. A policeman is just an outfit, a badge, a personal opinion,” Munson said.

Here’s what I’ve noticed in my East Oakland neighborhood. Young people are angry with police. But we still need them in times of danger.

We should be able to call for their help, not just hope for it.

Joi Smith is a reporter at Youth Radio.

In a letter to Youth Radio excerpted below, Oakland Police Sergeant Joseph Turner responded to Joi Smith’s report, and the recent protests in Oakland focused on tensions between the Oakland Police Department and communities plagued by violence.

Dear Youth Radio,Oakland has been the site of continued unrest and demonstrations regarding the recent Grand Jury verdicts in Ferguson, MO and NYC, NY. This in turn has raised questions about systemic bias in American society in general, and in the criminal justice system in particular.This has captured my attention for several reasons; first, as an officer and a Sergeant who supervises officers, I am concerned with the level of vitriol in some of the invective being leveled towards police officers in general in the wake of these events.  Secondly, however, as a person of mixed race and a citizen of Oakland, as well as being employed by the City, I am concerned with how our Department can engage more effectively with all of our citizens and deliver our services in a way that is not only fair, but also effective.

Part of the problem that I have seen is a lack of engagement and dialogue between disparate groups such as police officers and citizens of color, especially regarding realities of our lives that we as members of a group may hold as self-evident, but that members of other groups or communities might not even realize exist, or are a powerful force in our lives.  Right now, interaction feels a lot less like dialogue and a lot more like trench warfare.

My hope is that, going forward, these episodes will foster less hatred, close-mindedness, and violence, and more mutual respect and discussion regarding the goals, fears, and realities of our separate groups, and how we can work together to reach a safer and more inclusive Oakland – and by extension, a safer and more inclusive America.

I plan on using Youth Radio’s reporting to demonstrate to the officers that productive dialogue can occur with the citizen groups that we serve, and hopefully it will open their eyes to new realities, which in turn will make them more amenable to sharing their realities with citizens in a respectful, productive manner.



Sgt. Joe Turner

Oakland Police Department


Joseph Turner is Sergeant of Police in the Oakland Police Department.



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