Police recruits in New Haven who have otherwise survived their training still have one more test to pass before receiving their assignments, a grilling by teenagers like 18-year-old Mary Maynard about their backgrounds and attitudes toward working in an urban setting.
Do you have children? Have you ever worked in the city before? What are your experiences with young people? Give the wrong impression -- as one police officer did -- and these recruits are required to receive more training before taking over their beats.
This is the type of power wielded by Maynard and the other members of the Board of Young Adult Police Commissioners, which was considered the first official liaison in the country between teenagers and the police when it began in 1991.
The nine graduates of this year's 22-member board recently celebrated the accomplishments of their four-year terms. That included raising $6,000 for local charities and creating a speaking program in which Police Chief Melvin Wearing met with students in the city's schools to answer questions and discuss police activities.
Teenagers' direct access to the police chief wasn't envisioned when the program was first created. But the speaking arrangements are further proof that the board is more than "window dressing," said Detective Sgt. Patrick Redding, the board's supervisor.
"They have a voice about how they are policed and treated on the street," Redding said.
In the past three years, the chief has visited the city's high schools about a dozen times. During these sessions, students sometimes name police officers who the students say treat them poorly. The chief then brings that news to the attention of the supervisors of those police officers.
Students also question various police tactics. One case this past year drew considerable scrutiny. A white police officer from a neighboring town followed a suspect into the city during a car chase and shot to death a black man in his early 20s. The chief agreed with students that it was an example of use of excessive force, but he also was able to explain police procedures during such an incident, Redding said.
"The main purpose of the board is to help bridge the gap between young people and adults," said Maynard, who is planning to attend Fordham University in New York in the fall and is considering a career in law. "This gets the (police chief) into schools so young people can communicate their fears. It definitely helps. They feel like they have made a real connection with the police chief."
In order to fill the board, each year New Haven police sends letters to the city's six high schools inviting students to serve as commissioners. Interested students are then elected by their schools to serve on the board. Current commissioners recommend others to the board, which meets monthly with supervisors in the police department.
Continued in Part 2...