Dr. Natasha Pratt Harris

It was Friday May 22, 2015. My niece headed to Mergenthaler Senior High School’s (MERVO) senior prom, her prom. We, our entire family and many friends, saw her off.  We took pictures before she and her date pulled off. Everyone wanted more. I wanted more. When my daughters and my niece’s friends asked to take a peek at the prom goers, asked if they could catch a ride with me to see more, I piled them up in the SUV (all teens and tweens and one mom).  We arrived at “The Hotel” in Arundel Mills. The guys and girls, including my oldest daughters, walked into the hotel lobby but quickly walked out. They returned with a lot of chatter. The off duty police officers asked them to leave. They couldn’t see the prom goers. And there were restrictions on using the hotel bathroom, in the lobby. “There’s one stall,” they were told.

One teen appeared at least annoyed with her exchange with one Black female off-duty police officer. “Why was she looking at me like that?” She said. When my 12 year old daughter explained that one Black male officer said that “things would pop off in here,” if they did not leave the lobby, I was infuriated. I pondered. Did he or did any member of the law enforcement community use violence, violent words to address our children? Really? They were seeing prom goers, not acting out violently, nor engaged in criminal acts.  We were not a month removed from the Baltimore uprising. I reminded myself that behaviors and sentiments don’t change over night and some officers will not put on a “positive show” with many eyewitnesses or where cameras are constantly rolling.

I walked in with three of the teens, questioned the hotel policy on lobby guests, bathroom use. I asked, “Which officer said things would ‘pop off’ in here”? No one admitted this.  I addressed the officers similarly to how the young people should’ve addressed the officers and the officers address the young people, with RESPECT. I asked, “Why is a seasoned officer going back and forth with a teenager?” The female officer and one teen were, earlier, bickering. I also asked, “Do you realize what ‘popping off’ means? It means gun violence,” I said. “Was excessive force or the threat of excessive force necessary in this situation?” In a corner of the lobby, my 12-year old welled up with tears. She said that she was very upset and didn’t understand why police officers treated the group that way. She’s a child of our era and children cry when they are harmed or in pain.  She displayed all of the pain of our time.

I departed the lobby and returned with the “disrespectful” teen. The officers explained that she was disrespectful, using this to explain their exchange with the group. I asked the teen to apologize to the officers. She was apprehensive, and said, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” I explained that, “even if we don’t recognize the error in our ways, apologies make things better and that’s what we want.” We want better treatment for our young people. We want an end to police threatening or harming our children because of their frustrations with something as simple as a disrespectful teen.

The teen apologized to the Black male officer. While he did not admit to using the violent words (pop off), he apologized to her. When the teen apologized to the Black female police officer, the two embraced, the officer said, “I appreciate this.” There is power in an apology and in forgiveness. None of the officers appeared weak or less than professional when they harmonized with the teen. They appeared stronger than ever.

This week, nationally, we witnessed a video from McKinney, Texas of a White male police officer throwing a Black female teen, in a swimsuit, onto the ground and subdue her by sitting on her. We witnessed him pull out his service weapon and accost Black teens ONLY. We know that Black teens, regardless of the race of the officer, are treated more harshly than White teens, and this case represents countless others.

Can we forgive the behavior while simultaneously demanding that justice is served? Can we forgive disrespectful teens? Can we forgive ourselves when we over respond to “disrespectful” teens at home, in the classroom, on the bus, at church, in the community, etc.? Will we accept sincere apologies and forgive? There’s power in both.

Mr. and Mrs. Officer please STOP using unwarranted violence or threats of violence with our children. You were hired to serve and protect. Forgive our teens for being teens. While apologies and forgiveness seem to be the toughest things to do, they actually make things better.

My niece was beautiful, by the way. My daughters and my niece’s friends were able to get another glimpse and the officers greeted the young people with a smile.

Dr. Natasha Pratt Harris is associate professor and Criminal Justice Program Coordinator at Morgan State University