Building a bridge

OPENING CHANNELS: Group of Miami-Dade officers and local teens discuss how they interact.
OPENING CHANNELS: Group of Miami-Dade officers and local teens discuss how they interact. MIAMI HERALD

An unusual scene played out at Miami-Dade County Hall this week. A black teenager confronted a white police officer with this question: “What is it about me that makes me look so suspicious that you have to stop me on the street for no reason?”

A loaded question, but one that did not lead to a confrontation between the two, just a thoughtful discussion as a dozen Miami-Dade officers and a dozen minority teens came together for the final-semester meeting of the Youth-Police Dialogues project in an 18th-floor conference room at the Stephen P. Clark building on Wednesday.

It shouldn’t be the last meeting between these two groups. This initiative, being carried out in other cities, too, has hit on something needed for the good of our community.

The dialogues bring together minority youths and police officers to help curb conflict between them — the flashpoint in recent months for deadly encounters that have led to civil disturbances in several cities.

The idea is simple: Bring both sides together in an informal setting and use it to foster trust and cooperation. A lack of meaningful communication between youth and police is a serious public-safety issue for all of us. These dialogues seek to break down stereotypes and build mutual respect. It’s a big job, but small steps like these are needed and, it is hoped, effective.

For several months, under the auspices of Miami-Dade police, Florida International University and Commissioner Xavier Suarez — we commend them all — a group of racially and ethnically diverse volunteer teens along with officers have chatted on opposite sides of a large conference table. A facilitator, in this case Antoine Hardy, a visiting professor at FIU, led the discussions.

Those on each side, honestly, candidly, have expressed their views. Officers said teens tend to be overly aggressive when dealing with officers who stop them. Teens cited their fear and mistrust of police, which is why they refuse to recognize their authority. In today’s anti-police atmosphere, one officer admitted feeling “hunted.”

Another officer’s take-away: “There’s now an understanding from the kids about the work we do,” said Officer Mercy Rodriguez.

For teen participant, Kiara Lavin: “It’s amazing that I’m sitting here laughing with officers I was afraid of a few weeks ago.”

Progress? Yep. Should the Youth-Police Dialogues continue? You bet.