On a summer afternoon, 18-year-old Jaquan Johnson, who works at the NYPD’s 90th precinct in Williamsburg as part of a summer youth employment program, wrote a list of 10 questions he wanted to ask police officers.
“Why are some of you guys so aggressive when it’s not called for?”
“How are you guys when off-duty?”
“What made you want to be a cop?”
He paused and added another question to his legal pad notebook, “What goes through your head when you have to pull out your gun?”
Johnson’s questions will be used to help build an after-school curriculum for high schoolers in a program called NYC Together. The program, which is partnering with the 90th Precinct of the NYPD, brings 10 students to the precinct at Union Ave. once a week during the school year to be tutored and mentored by police. For many students, attending the program is an alternative to suspension. At the end of the semester, the students and police do a community service project together in hopes of bridging the gap between youth and law enforcement.
Johnson looked up from his list of questions; he was up to seven. He said he’s been thinking about what he wanted to ask police officers after he watched the videos of two black men who were shot and killed by police within a day of each other, one from Louisiana and the other from Minnesota. The gunning down of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in the same month left Johnson wanting to do more, much more. He said, as a black teen, he is in a unique position to understand the perspectives of the Black Lives Matter movement and the police.
He remembered when police mistook an uncle of his for someone else and arrested him. “I’m not going to lie; I was upset cause I just didn’t understand what was going on,” said Johnson. “Cops grabbed him and took him to the precinct, but then realized it wasn’t him.”
Dana Rachlin, 29, founded the not-for-profit NYC Together in 2015. The Brooklyn native said she is working with young people, like Johnson, to create community-building curriculum for the program.
“We want the people taking action to be the people who are most impacted by the problems,” Rachlin said, “so we are always trying to put police with young people to be each other’s solutions versus each other’s problems.”
Rachlin said in the program, officers and students talk about empowerment, life skills, job readiness, and future goals. Rachlin said it’s an opportunity for students to see the police as supportive and for the officers to hear the issues young people face every day.
New York City Council Member Antonio Reynoso of the 34th district said NYC Together is making a difference. Reynoso’s Communications Director Lacey Tauber said it’s the type of model that could be used citywide. “Kids wouldn’t get near the precinct; now you can’t keep them out,” she said. “It’s a great way to get officers, young men and women of color, and kids together. It humanizes them.”
According to The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, keeping teens out of school suspension and engaged in school decreases the risk that youth will come into conflict with the police. Rachlin said that research shows students of color are suspended and expelled at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers, a “discipline gap” that has been growing since the 1970s.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for students who are suspended three or more times by the end of their sophomore year of high school; those students are five times more likely to drop out.
In New York City, according to the State Education Department, the four-year graduation rate has made small gains, to 70.5 percent, up slightly from the year before. But while 88 percent of white students graduated on time last year, only 65 percent of black and Hispanic students did.
Consequences are dire for some young people who have experienced suspension or expulsion: They are more than eight times as likely to be incarcerated as those who graduate, according to Civil Rights Data Collected by the Department of Education.
Abel Valleciallo is 17 years old and said that it’s thanks to NYC Together that he will enter his senior year of high school this year. Valleciallo said when he started at Frances Perkins Academy at 50 Bedford Ave., he was often late for school and didn’t care about his grades. After being tutored by police officers through the program, he brought his grades up to B’s and C’s and plans to play basketball this year. Valleciallo participated in community service projects with police officers: planting two gardens, painting a mural, and feeding the hungry. He said the experience turned his life around.
“When you don’t take school seriously, it is easy to hang around doing the wrong things and participate in behavior that will only get you locked up or hurt,” said Valleciallo. “NYC Together changed all that.”
Gaby Torres is 18 years old and also working at the 90th Precinct this summer. She said she wants to be a lawyer one day and work toward social justice causes. Torres said she is working at the precinct to get to know police in her community in a different way.
“As a Hispanic, I never felt I couldn’t address a cop,’” she said, “for kids my age who are darker than me, that’s a reality for them, and they’re kind of skeptical: ‘Should I trust them or not, and what happens if I do walk around with a hoodie?’ I feel comfortable walking around with hoodie and some sweats and my hands in my pockets; not all kids do.”
Like Valleciallo, Jaquan Johnson is depending on this summer program to help prepare him to finish school. Rachlin is tutoring Johnson through NYC Together every week this summer at the precinct in order to help him graduate from high school in August. Johnson’s long-term goal, he said, is to give back to the community.
“I have a little sister and little brother and I’m just trying to make it better for them when they grow up,” said Johnson. “I’m creating a dialogue that can be used for cops and kids to come together and learn from each other.”
Rachlin said his list of questions will be part of an interactive workshop taught at the NYC Together after-school program with police and youth.
“He will go out with other youth to meet with officers right before roll call,” she said, “they go out on the streets and do a quick—I like to call humanization workshop—hey these are 10 things I’d like you to know about me, a young man of color and these 10 things I’d like to know about you, an officer.” He and the other teens in the program will also ask the officers to go out into the community and shake hands with people they have not met before.
Johnson guessed that a question that the police might have for him and other would be “Do you, in your community, think we see all black people the same?”
In his notebook, Johnson wrote down his last question, number 10 “Do you care about us?”
He read the question again and said, “I just want to help my generation be the future we’re supposed to be.”