Police and youth bridge the gap

PC Mardy Harding

Officer Diaz addresses the Explorers, the Seattle Police Department’s youth outreach students, talking about his experiences with first aid in the line of duty.

Amidst lockdowns, break-ins, and threatening phone calls, Nathan Hale has seen many police officers running around the school this past month. Some students get anxious at the sight of the red and blue lights flashing outside the window, and are more scared of an officer entering their classroom than the unknown threat running around the building. Much of the time, this fear comes from students’ own experiences with law enforcement.
The Seattle Police Department, SPD, youth outreach programs are an opportunity for police officers to try and alleviate some of this fear by interacting with youth in a different setting. The Seattle Police Explorer program is headed by Officer Adrian Diaz. The Explorer program brings together youth ages 14 to 21 from all over Seattle to better understand the lives of police officers. Youth attend monthly panels where they are trained in skills that the police use every day, such as fingerprinting, search and arrest procedures, and criminal investigations. Specialists are invited to Explorer meetings to teach the students about the investigative processes for major crimes such as homicides, narcotics violations, and gang activity.
The goal behind the Explorer program is to build an understanding between youth who may not trust the police, and the officers themselves, who are present at meetings and activities.
“It’s not just the officers that have to learn how to deal with youth, the youth sometimes have to learn how to deal with the officers as well,” Diaz said.
He wants youth to realize what it means to be a police officer, the roles police officers play in a community, and what those roles look like. Through this program, SPD is attempting to build relationships and connections between the community and law enforcement.
“It’s just interesting to see the point of view of the police from the inside, instead of [from] an outsider that is not informed about the situation,” Explorer and Hale freshman Steve Rivera Palamo said.
However, Diaz believes the police need to contribute to these relationships as well, despite their differences.
“I think as adults we forget to see the world as what it was like when we were kids,” Diaz said.
Currently, there are only two states that require police officers to go through training regarding interactions with youth. SPD, despite not being part of one of those states, has been at the forefront of a new training program involving educating officers on adolescent brain development and how to care for adolescents experiencing trauma. Diaz hopes that when the officers leave the training they will have some tools to better understand how to interact with youth that have seen trauma or are navigating the criminal justice system. Sometimes these youth are as old as the officers themselves, as some departments hire officers as young as age 21.
Youth may touch the criminal justice system in many different ways. Officer Diaz has worked with youth all across the board, from the Explorers he’s teaching, to juveniles involved in gun violence.
“I thought they were great kids,” he said. “But ten seconds of their life changed the next ten years of their life.”
Working with youth who have committed crimes or have the potential to commit crimes involves demonstrating the possible routes their lives could take.
The “If” project is a program for middle school students, with a curriculum based off of the question, “If you could have done one thing to change your life, what would it have been?” This question was originally asked of inmates at a women’s prison. Their responses, in the form of letters, became the inspiration for the Explorer program. Now, ex-inmates work in conjunction with police officers in schools to teach incarceration-preventing curriculum to at-risk youth.
“That’s a hard thing,” Diaz said, “because the last time that those inmates had freedom, it was a police officer taking their freedom away.”
The collaboration is important to demonstrate that even after people are incarcerated, they can improve their own lives.
“The youth see that as, ‘Hey, I’ve been through some issues, but I can still make some changes in my life,’” Diaz said.
Officers and inmates both are regularly held accountable for their actions.
Earlier in Diaz’s career, one of his squad mates shot and killed a man coming at the officers with a knife. Diaz was back on the street two hours after the event and was appreciative that he was alive.
This incident pushed the department to examine the use of tasers. Amidst public scrutiny, the investigation found that the bullet deflected through the man’s wrist and into his heart, showing that the original bullet was intended to shoot the knife out of his hand. The public did not know this when demanding the officer be fired.
Diaz pointed out that although in many cases the community demands answers right away, this is impossible because of the layers of investigation which an incident will be subjected to.
He admits, however, that the public’s doubts have foundation in reality.
“From the community’s experience, there’s a huge level of distrust because of history. We have had issues that…have not been favorable to people of color. It shouldn’t be sugar coated. We have to understand that,” he said.
Diaz described a study that was held at Stanford years ago that showed a disconnect between the definition of racial profiling between civilians and officers themselves. The difference in their definition showed two standards that he calls the “social” and “legal” standards. The “social standard” is what the community feels and experiences. What the officer legally can and cannot do he calls the “legal standard.”
He acknowledged both the civilian and police perspectives.
“Even though I’ve seen [the side of the police] for 19 years, I can’t neglect what the community feels. What their experience [throughout] history has been, and how they’ve come to this point…to say enough’s enough.”
The SPD’s youth outreach is not limited to the Explorer program.
One of the organizations they partner with, the Youth Violence Prevention Initiative, reaches out to communities to engage youth in activities and programs aimed at stabilizing and preventing conflict. The initiative, with help from employees of the Seattle Police Department, assess the needs of at-risk youth. Through the work of this initiative, “street outreach workers” are trained and dispatched to educate a broad population of young people in anger management, recreational opportunities, and the world of employment. The initiative’s goal is to achieve a 50 percent reduction in juvenile court referrals for violence as well as suspensions and expulsions from select middle schools for violence-related incidents.
In 2007, SPD also partnered with the 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of West Side Story to create the West Side Story Project. The theatre hosted summits where over 300 students participated in gang prevention work, role-reversals with police officers, and “theatre games to reduce cultural conflict.” The program ended with a production and the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, COPS, took this process and turned it into a national toolkit. It will be used by law-enforcement agencies in need of a structured youth outreach model all over the country.
In addition to the understanding SPD aims to achieve through these programs, there is hope that experiences participants have will encourage them to consider becoming a police officer.
Earlier this year, Mayor Ed Murray announced that he wanted to hire 200 more police officers by the year 2020. The department currently hires between sixty and eighty officers per year due to its rates of attrition and retirement. Combined with the additional hires, this means that they are really looking at adding 500 new officers over the next four years, according to Officer Diaz. These 500 officers will make up one-third of the department, and will likely stay with the force for at least 30 years.
“We are looking for the right candidates, who want to do this job, and see this as a profession,” Diaz said.
Many of the current advisors of the Explorer program were Explorers themselves. A couple of these former Explorers have even become senior officers, just a few years after joining the force.
“That way the youth will see, ‘Hey, they went through this program, they got hired on, look at where their career is, and I can be that person,’” Diaz said.
For this reason, the Explorer’s curriculum–while it contains many outings, field trips, activities, and seminars–includes education on social justice issues, such as race: dealing with the illusion of race and implicit bias.
“Those are going to be the things that the officer needs to be successful,” Diaz said.
The hope is that by teaching these things early on, they will come as second-nature if they choose to become officers.
Diaz estimates, however, that in reality only two-to-four percent of the youth involved in their outreach programs will join the force.
“It’s not because they aren’t qualified,” he said, “but because they grow up, they find other interests. But what they are going to experience is a better understanding of what the police department is about.”
At the same time, the police department employs a wide array of other professionals. From sketch artists, to architects, to information technology specialists, countless occupations work with law enforcement. With a vast majority of Explorers being in high school or college, it is likely that even in other positions, the students will cooperate with the police department again in their life after the program. Even when the program loses youth, Diaz said, it loses them to colleges and their dreams.
“Whether it’s with the department or not, that isn’t my worry. My only feeling is how do I build them into good citizens,” he said.


Photo By: Mardy Harding

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