“Police don’t respect the rights of young people.” —Richie Perez, National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights
“We’re not out there to antagonize or oppress, we’re out there to maintain the peace.” —Dennis Fitzgerald, New York City police officer
One summer night in 1995 in New York City, teenager Rance Scully and three of his friends were walking home from a party when they noticed a police car following them. The four teenagers were doing nothing wrong, so Scully convinced his friends that they should turn around and go talk with the officers. When they headed for the patrol car, the officers suddenly blinded them with a police light and ordered them to stop and spread their legs. Three cops jumped out of the car with guns drawn and surrounded the frightened teens. After aggressively interrogating and searching Scully and his friends, the police released them.
In New York City, police arrested two teenage boys and a young woman who repeatedly raped and tortured a thirteenyear- old girl, and then hung her up in a closet; fortunately, the girl escaped. A five-year-old in Chicago was not so lucky. Two boys—one twelve, the other thirteen—were arrested and convicted of dropping him out of a fourteenth-story window, killing him.
Teens and young adults are increasingly involved in encounters with police. The frightening ordeal experienced by Scully and his friends can cause many young people to fear law enforcement, yet police contend that they need to monitor teens more closely due to the brutal nature of some crimes committed by teens.
Teen-police conflicts are escalating as teen crime rates rise. According to the Heritage Foundation, teenagers are responsible for most of the violent crimes in the United States. In response to the high incidence of teen crime, police often increase their presence where crime occurs. For example, New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani ordered the New York City Police Department to control security at the city’s schools after several shootings by teens occurred on school grounds. Another example of stronger police presence can be seen in the creation of gang-control units that patrol the streets on a regular basis. Since up to 90 percent of gang members are juveniles, run-ins between police in gang-control units and teens are increasingly common.
Many teenagers argue, however, that they are being unfairly harassed and brutalized by law enforcement just because some teens commit violent crimes. Alex Stephen, sixteen, of New York City, said her cousin was beaten by police officers in 1989. Nagib Nabi, seventeen, claims that New York City police stopped and frisked him even though he had not done anything wrong. “They tried to intimidate me by calling me ‘sp-c’ and other insulting names,” he contends. “And they threw me on the wall, and as I turned around they hit me with the baton on the back of my head.” Gia Minetta, another teen from New York City, claims that during a police sweep, officers “grabbed my arm, twisted it behind me . . . and threw me up against the police van.” According to Minetta, she and her friends had done nothing to provoke the brutal treatment by police.
Statistics show that police are focusing more on teens and juvenile crime. Kim Nauer, a writer for City Limits, reports that in New York City juvenile arrests jumped almost 30 percent in the first year under Mayor Giuliani. In 1984, she claims, “police arrested 98,413 children and teenagers on everything from loitering to murder.” Almost half of those arrests were for “non-fingerprintable offenses,” meaning minor crimes like public drinking or disorderly conduct. Community activists who want to protect teens from police harassment protest the extent of those arrests. Joyce Hall, executive director of the Greater Brownsville Youth Council in New York City, claims that the arrests create a “cycle” in which teens who feel that they are treated disrespectfully by police “lash back, getting themselves into even deeper trouble with the law.”
But police see the teen crime situation very differently. More than one-third of all murders are committed by offenders under the age of twenty-one, guns are used in juvenile crimes at almost twice the rate they were in 1984, and teen drug and alcohol use—factors that contribute to juvenile crime—are on the rise. In 1995, nearly 11 percent of juveniles admitted to using illicit drugs; in the period between 1995 and 1996, 31 percent of twelfth-graders admitted to consuming alcohol to get drunk. These statistics raise legitimate concerns about teen criminality, police assert; therefore, they maintain that they are justified in closely watching teens for trouble in order to reduce crime. New York City police commissioner William Bratton argues that arresting teens for minor crimes such as subway turnstile–jumping will prevent more serious crimes because weapons and drugs are often found on these youths; confiscating the drugs and weapons can prevent teens from using them and committing future crimes.
Police officers, like teens, also feel that they are stereotyped and misunderstood. Officer Beverly Riggins from the New York City Police Department argues that “teens have negative ideas [about cops] based on television programs; our jobs are nowhere near what television portrays.” Retired police lieutenant Arthur Doyle asserts that teens develop stereotypes about police just as police do about teens. If a young man sees a friend harassed by an abusive cop, for example, he will tend to view all police officers as abusive.
In many ways, police-teen conflicts mirror the conflicts any civilian might have with police. Adults, like teens, sometimes claim that police harass them and discriminate against them. Police respond to these charges with statistics about crime rates and explanations about the dangerous nature of police work. The issue of discrimination is central to the debate surrounding police brutality. The contributors to Police Brutality: Opposing Viewpoints address this and other questions surrounding police brutality in the following chapters: Is Misconduct by Law Enforcement a Serious Problem? What Factors Cause Police Brutality? Do Modern Police Methods Cause Police Misconduct? Who Should Police the Police? When examining the viewpoints in this book, it becomes clear that the relationship between police and those they serve is an important issue in discussions about police brutality.