Pittsburgh Youth Speak Out to Improve Relations with Police

With help from the Hear Me project and Allies for Children, Pittsburgh youth led public input on hiring the city’s next police chief.

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ike many Pittsburgh youth, 19-year-old Curby Anderson has faith in the ideals of policing. When asked on camera to describe his vision of a police officer, he said he wants to see “a person that is dedicated to the work, that works hard, and believes that he can protect other people.”

But Anderson, a resident of Troy Hill, worries that police officers in his neighborhood sometimes may not live up to that vision. He fears police may be quick to make judgments, such as “this person’s gonna be bad, so we’re going to send them off to prison.” He’d like police officers to know the neighbors, particularly local youth, before making that call. “You never know, he could turn his life around.”

Anderson was one of more than 100 young people throughout the city who voiced their opinions of and experiences with Pittsburgh police as part of a campaign organized by the Hear Me project and Allies for Children.

Hear Me is an initiative of the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University. It aims to ensure young people’s voices are included in public dialogue about how to make community change. The project records kids’ stories, which are then collected on the project’s website and installed in innovative “tin can” kiosks embedded with audio files. These kiosks are placed in coffee shops, libraries, and recreational spaces around the city for the public to listen to the stories.

Hear Me’s latest campaign is about public safety. It’s collecting stories from young people about their interactions with, and perceptions of, law enforcement officers.

As part of this work, seven participants, including Anderson, met with Mayor Bill Peduto in May as he kicked off the search for the city’s next police chief. And Anderson joined the city’s screening committee to help review applications for the job. After the meeting with Peduto, Hear Me continued to encourage youth to make their voices heard at community forums, the last of which was held July 24.

[one_third][blockquote]The most satisfying part is seeing how many young people wanted to take part in the conversation. [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

“For me, the most satisfying part is seeing how many young people wanted to take part in the conversation,” said Jessica Kaminsky, the Hear Me project manager who coordinated the campaign.

By partnering with approximately 20 other local youth-serving organizations, Hear Me reached young people from 33 neighborhoods. Children as young as age 6 took part, as well as young adults up to age 20. The majority—53 percent—described their perceptions of police as positive, whereas 35 percent labeled police as neutral, and only 12 percent termed them as negative. [/two_third_last]

But when young people told their stories of experiences with the police, the picture became more complex. Of the 35 youth who described their perception of police officers as neutral, 23 shared stories of negative experiences with police officers. The report concluded, “In our interpretation, these 23 students recognized the role of police officers as positive public officials, but a negative personal experience changed their perception to neutral.”

“Students want to know police officers. They want more positive interactions,” said Kaminsky. “They want to establish a positive relationship instead of react to a negative situation.”

In Hear Me’s recordings, youth also offer some very specific recommendations for the next police chief. “I would tell the chief of police to be responsible and increase officers’ activities with youth, maybe through the schools,” said Kevin, age 15, from Beltzhoover. (As a matter of policy, Hear Me does not publish last names of youth on its website or in other materials.) “If you’re young and they talk to you a lot, you’ll grow up and understand that they’re there to help you. . . . You can trust them. If they don’t talk to you or anything you’ll think they’re kind of mean.”

“Make sure he isn’t a person who prejudges quickly and thinks things through before he acts,” advised Andre, age 15, of Spring Hill.

“Look for someone who cares about the community,” suggested Brittany, age 18, of Brighton Heights. “Someone who can target teenagers to help them become better people.”

Stories collected through this campaign are compiled in a portfolio on Hear Me’s website and can also be hear at a kiosk near you.

Published July 28, 2014