The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Black Lives AND Blue Lives Matter
Bryant Alston

Growing up, I saw a lot of my family make bad decisions. Some family members got arrested a bunch of times; some are in a gang. My mom, dad, and grandma smoked marijuana and abused alcohol, and their abuse and neglect landed me in foster care.

I also hung around people who sold drugs and were in a gang, but when I was 15, I decided to straighten up. I separated myself from people who were a bad influence and joined the Police Explorers, a youth program that lets teens work with officers and learn about how they do their jobs.

I joined the Explorers because I was tired of all the crime and violence I’d seen. I decided I wanted to become a cop to make things better. Gangs harm our neighborhoods because they turn little kids into criminals. But I know firsthand that gang members can change and do good by their communities. As a cop, I could explain to kids how gangs hurt them and their families. I’d tell them that more people want to help you when you’re not a criminal. More doors will open to jobs.

I’d also help the neighborhood I work in by taking weapons and drugs away from anyone who had them illegally. I’d play sports and watch movies with the young kids and the teens who live there. When young people know the cops in their neighborhood, I believe they’re less likely to commit crimes.

What We Learn

Being in Police Explorers gives me a head start on my career, because after age 18, an Explorer is treated like a police cadet. It’s the same training, just not with real guns. I’m 17 now, and I want to go to college and then apply to the force when I’m 21. They will like that I did three years in the police field as an Explorer.

The Police Explorers teaches kids how to be good cops. There are 20 of us Explorers associated with the 41st precinct in the Bronx. We spend three hours twice a week at the precinct, and we all work with the same two officers.

We are trained to serve and protect, the same as the officers. We watch videos of different scenarios of car stops and arrests. They show a wrong version and a right version, so we learn how, for example, to tell a suspect why you pulled them over. We practice shooting with paintball guns at people-shaped targets: We’re taught to aim for different body parts for different situations. If a suspect is running away, you aim for the shoulder. Aim for the torso when the person is running toward you and may try to harm you. If he or she is holding or reaching for a gun, the officers told us, you should aim for the head.

We’re also taught how to do surveillance. Once a month, we follow someone else in the group for a whole day and try to keep them from noticing. If the follower gets caught, he has to do 20 pushups; if he doesn’t, the person followed has to do the pushups. One time, I shadowed another Explorer into his house. I told his mom, and she let me hide in his closet for two hours, which was mad boring. I was never caught, so the other kid had to do the pushups.

We learn how to frisk people and when. Reasons to frisk someone include a bulge in their jacket or pants that could be a gun. Another is if the person is loud and rowdy. This one’s not always fair—what if you were just happy? But often loud people are drunk or high and this can make them violent.

The final reason is if someone fits the description of a suspect. Sometimes that’s based on behavioral analysis: In other words, what type of person might have done this crime? And that often means someone black or Latino. You rarely see a Caucasian person stopped and frisked.

As a cop, I’d like to stop the lower-level targeting of black and Hispanic kids—especially because it just happened to me.

On the Other Side

Last week, I was walking down a block in the Bronx when I heard sirens behind me. Two male officers got out of the car and walked toward me. One of them said, “Have you heard what’s going on in the area?”

“No,” I answered. I told him I was not required to answer his questions. Both of the officers were tall, and one was fat. The fat officer was doing all the talking, while the thinner cop stood there holding his gun.
“Yes, you are,” said the big guy.

I said, “I will not answer your questions, so take me in because you’re wasting my time.” I felt like I was being racially profiled because young white men were walking by, and they didn’t get stopped. The two officers took me to the 41st precinct—yes, the exact precinct where I’m a Police Explorer.

image by YC-Art Dept

As I walked into the precinct I spotted the sergeant who is in charge of the Police Explorers. I said, “Hi, Sergeant.”

“What are you doing here this early?” she asked. The officers looked surprised.

The fat officer said, “Has he gotten into trouble with you?”

The sergeant said, “Never. He’s one of ours.” Then, to me, she asked, “Why, did you do something wrong?”

I said, “Ask these officers.”

Sounding upset, she demanded, “I want you to tell me why you’re here.”

The talking cop said, “He refused to answer our questions and he told us to bring him in because we’re wasting his time.”

The sergeant told us to meet with her in two days. “I want to hear both sides,” she said.

At the meeting, I said, “I felt uncomfortable with two cops holding their guns while talking to me. I told them to take me in to avoid a potential incident.”

The fat officer said, “Next time, say you’re a Police Explorer, that you’re with us.”

I looked at both arresting officers in astonishment. “I get a free pass because I know people above you? So what happens if I didn’t?” They all reacted like I’d said something surprising.

Acknowledging Racism

I was thinking how things could have gone differently because of all the disturbing videos I saw this summer of cops shooting black men. It happens so much it seems normal, and this is what scares me.

I have built a bond with a lot of officers, and I don’t like it when people talk about hating all cops. I say, “They have a dangerous job and they do what they are trained to do.”

But lately, police brutality seems to be everywhere. When I see the videos of innocent black men killed by white cops, especially when they don’t get punished, I worry about being a cop. The police officer who killed Eric Garner in July 2014 had no right to use deadly force. As much as I like the Police Explorers, I wish they would acknowledge that there is racism in the NYPD.

Still, it does not end my desire to become a cop. Now I think it’s even more important to have good cops on the force. If I saw another cop abuse his power, I would tell him to stop. If he didn’t, I would go to the higher-ups, all the way up to the police commissioner.

image by YC-Art Dept

I admit it might be hard to break the code of silence. I’ve heard officers say they would never report their partner for fear of retribution from everyone else in the precinct. They said that telling on a fellow cop may get you the cold shoulder—or worse. For example, if you call for backup, the others might take their time, which could cost you your life.

But even knowing those dangers, I feel like I could break the code of silence if it was necessary. Bad cops make the people go against the police, so we have to help get them fired.

A Balanced Perspective

I also think it’s important to talk to people who don’t like cops to get a balanced perspective. Around the time Eric Garner was killed, I was walking in Harlem when I saw a few hundred people of all races walking together. Many were wearing T-shirts that said, “I Can’t Breathe” or “Black Lives Matter,” and yelling things like “Stop police brutality!” I was wearing my Police Explorer T-shirt.

I thought, “I hope this is done when I become a cop, because I want my community to trust me and the people I work with.”

I didn’t fully understand what the group was about, but I got a gut feeling that they were tired of the bloodshed, like I am. I walked with the protesters because I knew there was a point they were trying to get across. But I didn’t yell or chant.

A man looked at my shirt and said, “You could be the next one killed.” I replied, “I don’t think so,” but I knew it was possible.

I kept going to Black Lives Matter marches, and I bought an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt to show solidarity with Eric Garner (those were his last words, repeated over and over as cops continued to choke him to death). I’m a Police Explorer, but I’m also a young black male who could get killed by cops. The feeling I got at these marches was heartache. I couldn’t believe that cops were doing these things.

I know from the Explorers that cops are not supposed to kill unarmed men, so why did so many cops do that? How were they not punished?

For example, in Baltimore, Freddie Gray sustained spinal injuries from a rough ride in a police van and died in April 2015. This was a rare case where the six officers involved actually were indicted, charged with second-degree assault, manslaughter, and second-degree murder. But three out of the six were acquitted, and charges were dropped for the other three. The cops who choked Eric Garner to death, on camera, weren’t even indicted.

It Takes Both Sides

I wanted to know what the cops have to say about all the killings, but it was surprisingly hard to get an interview with a police officer for this magazine. The media office of the NYPD just said, “No,” without any explanation. The cops I work with at the 41st precinct did talk a little about the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (both deaths were caught on camera and appeared unjustified). They said those cops shouldn’t have shot armed people in states where it was legal to have guns. But I don’t think they’d break the code of silence if one of their fellow officers shot someone.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which has been protesting police shootings since the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013, says all police departments are racist.

But I still believe that individual cops can make a difference. I think some white cops are good, and I think it helps if any cop gets to know the people in the neighborhood. The cops do have to get over their code of silence and earn back people’s trust. If cops don’t have a good justification for killing someone, they should be fired and charged with a crime. But people should stop spitting, yelling, and especially shooting at police. It takes both sides to better our communities.

What They Want

This summer, Black Lives Matter released a platform of changes they want to see:

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