We can steer youth away from crime and violence

At the corner of Northwest 27th Avenue and 106th Street in Miami, across from Miami Dade College’s North Campus, passersby are struck by an image rarely seen: a billboard depicting a police officer and a little boy of color standing in solidarity against gun violence.

In communities nationwide, not enough days go by without a news report of a heartbreaking and unnecessary loss of life to gun violence.

In the past few years, many of those headlines have featured boys and men, who for whatever reason were killed by the very people whose job it was to serve and protect them.

More recently, several police officers have been shot to death while simply doing their jobs.

The circumstances surrounding all of these tragedies vary, but many have given proof to the theory that perception is everything, and that the alleged facts of a situation can fly faster than a speeding bullet when fear and loathing take over.

Finding ways to stem gun violence consumes lawmakers and legislators around the country.

But as we debate the merits and costs of various solutions — from universal background checks to bans on large-capacity ammunition magazines — we must not lose sight of how much can be achieved with good old-fashioned education.

That is the concept behind the billboard, which was unveiled as part of the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project’s Police and Youth Conference in October.

The purpose of the annual event is to continue an ongoing conversation between law enforcement and youth to ease the tensions that exist between them and teach them how to interact with each other. It follows guidelines outlined in the Role Models’ brochure, the “Guide to Better Police-Youth Relations.”

Time and effort are the most important factor that can foster improved relations between youth and police.

Nearly 1,000 middle-school boys and hundreds of police officers from different municipalities (Miami Dade, Miami, Miami Gardens, Aventura, Miami Beach, North Miami, Coral Gables, school police and corrections) participated in interactive workshops during which the boys and police officers learned how to engage with each other in various scenarios in positive ways.

The lessons learned at the conference and in the brochure are reinforced at follow-up summits led by police officers in hospital auditoriums throughout Miami-Dade County. Both the boys and the officers believe such interactions have made an important difference in their lives throughout the years.

It also helps our young people think more than twice about whether turning to gun violence is a viable solution to turning their lives around. They are warned about many consequences.

If you’re older than 14 and take a gun — loaded or unloaded — to school, you may be charged as an adult, and some gun charges have minimum mandatory sentences of up to five years. Arrest records do not go away when you reach age 18.

They’re also exposed to mind-boggling statistics regarding gun violence: There were eight murders this school year by children 17 and under, and 20 attempted murders committed by children 17 and under.

If this community is to effectively address crime, it must focus on crime and violence among youth. Juvenile delinquents and gun violence have increased sharply in the last few years.

This community must go to whatever extent necessary to ensure that youth have a clear understanding of the law and a clear understanding of the role police play in fostering and maintaining a safe and healthy community.

The 5000 Role Models program will continue to provide opportunities for positive interaction and communication, which the conference participants overwhelmingly agreed must occur.

U.S. Rep. Frederica S. Wilson represents Florida’s 24th District.

From Capitol Hill