Ruben Roberts has spent decades healing relationships and communities. The former NAACP leader has seen a lot in his time working in the Miami-Dade area and has confronted plenty of tough issues that plague marginalized communities. Including the seemingly never-ending hostilities between people of color and law enforcement.
This is a conflict as old as America itself. It’s a complex situation that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over the course of generations and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. While there’s no fix-all solution to such a deep problem, Roberts is doing what he does best and fighting to fix the relationship people of color have with law enforcement through his program, Teen Talks.
“Many young people’s perception of the police stems from bad encounters that they or their loved ones or people in their neighborhood have experienced,” Roberts explains. “And for some, that’s the only interaction they’ve ever had with the police officers. Teen Talks give youth opportunity the to have a positive encounter instead.”
Roberts’s goal with Teen Talk is simple, bridge the gap between inter-city youth and local law enforcement. The program takes inner-city youth and police officers and puts them in a room together to speak on their differences. By allowing the youth to ask hard questions, his program gives officers a chance to give context to the seemingly overly-aggressive way they conduct themselves.
“Let’s say police in an area get an APB [all-points bulletin] on an armed and dangerous suspect wearing a black hoodie. Many Black men could fit that description, so each person they stop to question must be approached as if they could be the person they’re looking for. Some bad cops will use this as an excuse to harass the community, which is completely unacceptable, but most officers want to safely and quickly apprehend the perpetrator.
However, the first instinct Black teens tend to have when they see a police officer aggressively heading in their direction is to run away. When in fact, what they should do is cooperate with the police. Afterward, if they feel like the officers were wrong or violated their rights, they can go to their parents and file a police report. But the number one goal for the young person in that situation is to make it home safe.”
Educating the youth is the primary goal of Roberts’ program. Removing the negative connotation associated with the presence of police is vital to improving relationships. But relationships are a two-way street, and sometimes it’s the teens who do the educating.
“A lot of police officers aren’t in touch with the communities they protect. That includes Black police officers. There are many officers who see themselves not as servants to the community but as enforcers of the law. And when helping the community becomes secondary to keeping everyone in line, it makes it very difficult to have a positive relationship with the area.
Teen Talks creates a space where both sides can sit down, talk and humanize the other. So that the next time they interact with each other, they both understand that at the end of the day, the other just wants to make it back home.”
If there’s one thing for sure, communication is desperately needed in more communities around the country. With more gun violence and crime increasing by the day, it’s important that both police officers and people of color understand that the other isn’t necessarily their enemy. And thanks to Ruben Roberts’ hard work in his city, we might see a generation of Miami youth grow into adults who have a more friendly and trusting relationship with law enforcement.