The abundance of D.C. Metropolitan police patrolling the neighborhoods around Anacostia High School has strained relationships between students and authorities. This prompted community leaders, including Union Temple Baptist Church pastor Willie F. Wilson, to intercede.

Officers and Anacostia High School students perform a skit demonstrating how best to de-escalate tensions between police officers and Black teens. (Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman)

For students, many claiming negative opinions of the police based largely on interactions with them, a public safety forum on Dec. 2 was an important step. It offered insight from Interim Police Chief Peter Newsham, skits from active officers and the members of the school’s Public Safety Academy, and a question and answer session to facilitate candid dialogue between students and law enforcement.

“Police officers are human too. It’s stressful and sometimes when police make stops they feel the same anxiety you feel,” Newsham told an unsympathetic group of Black teens, whose jeers threatened to drown out his comments. “We want to ensure that when interactions between police and Anacostia students take place – no matter how stressful the situation may be – that everyone leaves safe.”

AreaVibes, a neighborhood rating system, found the overall crime rate in Anacostia is 209 percent higher than the national average, with residents having a 1 in 12 chance of being a victim of violent crime. As officers straddle the fence between protecting good citizens and capturing those committing crimes, issues – including stop and frisk protocol, the temperament of the officers, and the weight shouldered by students of “fitting the description” of those surveilled in crimes – have made their presence among Black teens a minefield of apprehension.

“How does an officer with a gun, stick, pepper spray, camera, and twice as much weight as a kid, feel threatened by a teenager?” one student yelled to Newsham as he exited the stage.

The department’s reputation among young Southeast dwellers remains as sullied as the reverse. With constant news stories of police misconduct – including a Nov. 28 report from the Metropolitan Police Department’s Office of Police Complaints (OPC) which detailed 945 complaints of abusive police language and conduct.

“I’ve been that person where you’ve not done anything and then was stopped by fellow officers. You have rights and the police must mandate your rights, but fighting with the police is not how that’s done,” Officer Anthony Manley told the students. “We all hate the phrase ‘fitting the description,’ but it makes no sense to escalate a minor inquiry or incident into something more because of distrust, fear, and anxiety.”