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Black Teens Charge Police With Harassment

Cambridge Officers Acknowledge Some Complaints Valid, But Say Most Incidents Are Routine Questionings

By June Shih, Crimson Staff Writer

Sixteen-year-old Bryon R. Logan was walking with a group of friends in Central Square one night when they were stopped by the police.

The officers questioned Logan and then searched him for drugs, asking him to drop his pants.

Logan, who is Black, says he was just walking home from the 7-Eleven that night.

"I felt violated. I was angry. Why search me?" he says.

To Logan and many other Black teens interviewed in the city, the incident typifies a daily occurrence throughout Cambridge--the harassment of Black youth by the police.

But to the police the incident represents a routine questioning of a person whose behavior they perceived as suspicious, which as crime-preventing as well as law enforcement officers, they are legally allowed to do.

These two different views lie at the center of tensions and conflict between the city's teenagers and the police force.

Last summer public attention focused on the police department after Karimu Rashad, a Black Rindge and Latin graduate, filed a complaint alleging he had been mistreated by a police officer.

Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves '72 publicly supported Rashad, angering many police officers.

The police review board cleared the officer involved earlier this fall. The civilian review board is still considering the case.

Black teenagers interviewed at the city's high school and youth centers say encounters with the Cambridge police, such as Logan's and Rashad's, are common. The city's Black teenagers, especially males, are unnecessarily being singled out for "harassment" by the police for no other reason than the fact that they are Black, they say. The teenagers cite incidents ranging from "being roughed up" by police to being rudely questioned and ordered to leave neighborhood street corners where they are "just hanging out" with friends.

The kinds of encounters with police officers have confirmed many teenagers' longstanding distrust of the police.

"I don't think they have any respect for us. I don't have any respect for them," says Logan, a junior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. "When I see them, I don't think they protect me."

While police admit that some of the teenagers' complaints and stories of harassment by specific officers may be valid, they maintain that, on the whole, their interaction with city teens are conducted on a strictly professional and courteous basis.

"I thinks [teenagers] are being treated with total respect in this city," says Sergeant Richard Lyons, "I think we're being very patient."

Black teenagers' perceptions of the police are founded on the belief that they are harassed because officers are guided by racist stereotypes of young Black men.

"They see Blacks as no-good savages in baggy denim jeans," says Romel Augustin, a senior at Rindge and Latin.

While "there are some parasitic brothers out there," police have come to believe that all Black men are criminals, Augustin adds.

"If they see Black kids hanging out, they think we're all bad kids," says Kevin Dunkley, who every night sees police cars and wagons cruise Western Avenue, the site of a high amount of drug-related crime.

But police maintain that the majority of encounters cited by the teens as incidents of harassment are mislabeled.

"I firmly believe it's an easy out. I don't believe any one is specifically targeted," says Vice/Narcotics Detective Stanley J. Gedaminsky, Known to many Cambridge youth as "Pac Man."

Routine police work is characterized as "harassment" by teenagers because they do not understand the full extent of the police's legal power, Gedaminsky says.

They don't understand that it's the duty of an officer to clear a public thoroughfare when "15 kids are blocking the sidewalk in front of Church's or Hi-Fi Pizza" in Central Square, says Juvenile Detective Spencer Franklin, a 14-year veteran of the force.

"The police officer says 'pick up your bike and get out of here;' they're calling that harassment," says Franklin, who is Black.

Officers have the right to perform "threshold inquiries"--to stop and question citizens--when they suspect a crime about to happen, Gedaminsky says.

While some teens understand that the policy may be routine, they say that police often go beyond questioning to baiting them.

"When they stare at you, you stare back. They want us to get suspicious. If you stand there and look at them, often they say you have a personal problem," says Steve O. Moore, 17.

But police say their "stop and asks" and dispersions of groups of kids occur only in neighborhoods where there is known drug activity or when they are called to the scene by suspicious or annoyed neighbors.

"We don't go around bullying kids. Anytime we go on a call, it's because we're sent there. We don't go for nothing," says Officer Edward Jillett, Jr.

Asking kids to leave sidewalks is just another way of crime prevention. "If you stand on a corner and it's a corner for selling drugs, [you'll be moved off.]" Franklin says.

Police question the motives of those kids who do hang out in drug neighborhoods.

"We know that that's not just because they're hanging there. They're hanging there for various reasons," says Commissioner Perry L. Anderson.

Teenagers counter that it's the everharassing police, not drugs, that have taken their communities from them. Police should not be able to ask them to leave their own neighborhood corners, especially when no drug transactions are taking place, the teenagers say.

"It makes me feel trapped in an area where I can't do anything without a police car or policeman on foot, walking behind me, turning down the same street I turn," says Jezell R. Harris, 17.

Belinda Augustin, a resident of North Cambridge, says she should be able to hang out with the friends she grew up with, without police interference. "I can't see why you wouldn't want me to talk to him because he's a drug dealer...that person is not always a drug dealer...I see good qualities in him," she says.

Just as a few Black criminals help perpetuate stereotypes about the entire race, a few bad officers contribute to the teenagers' negative perception of the force, police say.

"There are police officers that do overreact, there are bigots in the police department," Lyons says.

"I'm sure there are one or two here who are treating kids [in ways] they shouldn't be treated," Franklin says.

Franklin says he believes those bad officers will eventually be discovered by the department. "Everyone else suffers from these officers," Franklin says. "If they are doing it, then sooner or later they'll be dealt with."

Teenagers, however, say they don't report their experiences to the police department's internal review board nor the civilian review board because they are either too scared or don't believe that reporting these officers will help.

The teenagers say the police close ranks to protect each other from claims of harassment. And at least some officers acknowledge that what the youth say is true.

"A police officer would rather commit perjury than admit [to committing police brutality] to a civilian review board," Lyons says.

The distrust of the police is also exacerbated by cases of mistaken identity. When suspects are described as Black the police are more likely to stop and question, teenagers say. "Some of them get stopped just because they're Black. If the kid fits the description, he's going to be stopped," Detective Franklin says.

Two summers ago, Edwin M. Asamoah, now a senior at Rindge and Latin, says he was walking home to North Cambridge after playing basketball in Somerville when he was stopped and "roughed up" by a city police officer who accused him of stealing a bicycle.

"[The police officer] picked me up by the pants, put his stick to my neck and threw me up against a car," Asamaoh says.

Finally, after a "white lady who had seen everything" attested to his innocence, the police officer let him go, Asamoah says.

The incident, Asamoah says, is indicative of a lack of racial sensitivity among officers on the force. "They assume we all look alike," says Asamoah. "Tall, Black, that's anybody."

But police assert that these cases are honest mistakes, and that it is all part of the job.

What would the community say if "you told them you didn't stop [a Black offender] because you were white and were afraid to stop him because of the repercussions?" Franklin asks.

Not all police find it difficult to relate to the experiences of Cambridge teens. Six years ago, Detective Frank E. Greenidge was arrested with his friends when police thought they fit the description of "three Black men" who had robbed a store in Central Square.

"I felt anger," says Greenidge, who was applying to the police academy at the time, "I cried. It really set me back."

"I was shocked about being arrested for something I didn't do," he says. He was eventually cleared of all charges.

Greenidge, 25, says he agrees with the teenager's perceptions of the police force and of society in general.

"You're treated differently, that's for sure," Greenidge says. "You're looked at as a criminal, not a person. Criminal first, person second, and that's not fair."

Police officers and teenagers are well aware of their differences in opinion, and have made efforts to discuss their problems at "teen summits" at various locations around the city. Police say they also are making serious efforts to forge relationships with kids not only through volunteering at area youth centers, but also by walking beats in the neighborhoods. Yet both sides are only cautiously optimistic that the new dialogue will improve relations.

Greenidge, a juvenile detective who grew up in the neighborhood on Western Avenue known as the Coast, spends much of his free time at the Moore Youth Center on Gilmore Street cultivating friendships with the teens.

"You have to get to know the children," Greenidge says.

And many teens say they appreciate the efforts of individual police officers who come to talk to them rather than question them. "We can trust them because they talk to us, they reason with us but other police don't do it," Moore says.

But others notice that only the Black police officers take time to play basketball or talk with them at the youth center, while the white police "just ride by and stare at us like we're bad kids," says Kevin Dunkley.

Lacking an official directive from the top, few officers spend time volunteering. "If you don't want to do it, you won't do a good job," Greenidge says.

And Greenidge says there are just some officers on the force who are temperamentally unsuited to dealing with kids. "Not all officers can talk to children and take [their] verbal abuse."

Belinda Augustin, who will moderate a summit to take place at Rindge and Latin this evening, says she hopes that a greater understanding will emerge from the meeting.

"I hope the police will learn how to deal with us."

Still others believe that they will just be wasting their breath. Pointing to his ears, Carvel Monroe says, "It'll go in one and out the other."

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