MBK Positive Policing Dialogue Youth Reflection

Recently, I attended the MBK Positive Policing Dialogue in Albuquerque along with fifty other students from local schools and about 10 officers from Albuquerque Police Department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department.  Entering the African American Performing Arts Center where the event was held, I had little idea of what to expect. Smiling faces welcomed my fellow students and I  walked into an open room with four tables creating a square surrounded by chairs. We were the first group in there but soon other groups filed in, mostly comprised of black teenagers. The school sponsors sat in chairs around us, lining the walls, and soon we began talking amongst ourselves. I was excited to see that poet and community leader Hakim Bellamy was facilitating the event. After the morning activities, Hakim invited young men in the room to write down a fear they have of dealing with police officers. He asked the officers to write down their fear when dealing with civilians.

Hakim prompted the officers and an officer emerged from the corner of the room. He was short and gaunt, wearing his sheriff uniform. He and a student began to roleplay, reading the notecards written by participants in the room. As we watched the two roleplay, something about this officer felt familiar.  He looked around the room as he read and added commentary about police officers while making eye contact with the students; but he would not look at me. I continued to look at him and then I realized why he would not look at me, and why he looked so familiar. That was the officer. I leaned over to my friend Tyrone and whispered, “That’s the officer that stopped me at Dillard’s.” That day in Dillard’s had been my first experience of clear racial profiling. I thought to myself, “What were the chances that the officer that profiled me would be at this event?” I whispered back to Tyrone, “I am going to say something.”

I was very nervous so I wrote my thoughts on my phone and within a few minutes I captured everything I believed needed to be said. My apprehension dissolved as a new sensation replaced it: excitement. I was in an unlikely situation that should be used as an advantage so I waited for the right moment to speak.  By this time the officer had retreated to the officer huddle but it did not matter; he was still in the room. A moment of silence prompted me to seize the opportunity as I raised my hand.

“Hello, my name is Katon. I am the senior class president at Albuquerque High School. I have only had reasonable interaction with on-duty officers and I have yet to feel that I have been unfairly treated,” I continued to say. “But unfortunately, I cannot say the same for off-duty officers.” At this moment my phone went to sleep and my notes disappeared. It did not matter, I knew exactly what I was going to say and I recounted the events. The officer stayed in the flock of officers until I finally said, “and I believe this officer was the officer standing right over there.”

I recalled the humiliation of being walked out of a dressing room by this officer in the middle of the store. My “white pants” supposedly matched the profile of someone who had shoplifted the previous day that required immediate intervention. I recounted that the officer had pointed to his Hispanic skin tone as if it were a moral license for him to stop me and that I added that although I was angry, I had almost no recourse. I returned to the store later and was not able to get the officer’s name, the only thing I was told was that it was not just my “white pants” but also my “ears” that were used as identifiers. It bothered me deeply for the next few months but I knew that a letter would get nowhere, only further waste my time and allow the incident to take up more of my life.

Once I stopped, the officer retorted, “Did you ever wonder how I felt about the incident?”  I had not and I told him that I did not think about his feelings during the incident. He went on to say, “I felt terrible about that day and I wish it did not have to go that way.” His tone seemed to suggest that he had remorse but all this meant to me was that he knew it was wrong. Still he did it anyway. I explained this to the officer and in response he told me that he “didn’t have a choice.”  This disturbed me. This was the same language uttered by law enforcement during the Civil Rights Movement. I felt he most certainly did have a choice and as an officer he knew this. The conversation began to devolve into a circular argument full of tautological reasoning. I didn’t get an apology that day but I feel better knowing that my voice was heard.

The MBK Positive Policing Dialogue provided a real-world opportunity to confront racial biases and profiling. The chance to confront the issue openly was far more valuable than I could have imagined. The power of public accountability and open, candid dialogue is invaluable in addressing the challenges young men of color face when dealing with law enforcement. If my story can change the way that young men of color are perceived by police, then my participation at the event was well-worth the time.

Katon Vanetten is a high school senior at Albuquerque High School and active youth leader in the community.