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Black Teens Aspiring To Be Police: 'Why Don't We Become The Change?'

Suriyya Lawrence, 17, wants to be a police officer. She's had to convince doubting friends and family it's the right choice amid a debate over police brutality toward minority communities.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Suriyya Lawrence, 17, wants to be a police officer. She's had to convince doubting friends and family it's the right choice during a debate over police brutality toward minority communities.

Suriyya Lawrence really wants to be a police officer.

But the 17-year-old rising high school senior from Jennings has been getting more doubtful looks and questioning of her choices by friends and family members this summer, as the nation’s focus hones in on the role of police and their relationship with the Black community.

“They'll say, well, the police really don't help or they don't do their job,” she said about the doubters. “It has made me second-guess, but I still want to because it’s my life.”

She’s had an opportunity, like her classmates Karl Moore Jr. and Jeremiah Williams, to meet and get to know police officers through the Careers in Law Enforcement Program at Jennings High Schools. The three teens, all of whom are Black and live in Jennings, shared their thoughts with St. Louis Public Radio about the relationship between police and their community amid a nationwide reckoning over systemic racism and police brutality.

Karl got involved with the law enforcement careers program after getting to know one of his school’s resource officers. Officer Brandon McCrary would often come to football and basketball games to cheer Karl and his teammates on.

The 17-year-old student-athlete thought the physical aspects of police training would help with his conditioning. The police workouts are harder than anything he goes through at football practice. “They get to you,” he said.

Spending time at the academy also helped him get to know “what goes on behind the scenes, what officers are really taught before they come out and become a real officer,” he said. “It’s kind of cool to see all the different gadgets and things they use and different tests they gotta go through.”

Karl Moore Jr., a 17-year-old from Jennings, is involved in a law enforcement training program and supports protests against police brutality.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

He’s disappointed he didn’t get to run through the big training obstacle course before the pandemic curtailed the program.

All three teens speak highly of the officers they interact with through school. But they know that outside of school, there is mistrust and resentment toward law enforcement in communities of color.

Through the program, the students learned police officers should know better than to use dangerous restraints on suspects and shouldn’t be so quick to pull their weapons on suspects who aren’t threatening. Maybe some of them should be retrained, the teens say.

A fear deep down

For Jeremiah, 17, the leadership training drew him to the program. He says there should be more honest conversations between law enforcement and neighbors.

“Just talk about the things the police do that upset us, and the police can talk about things we do that upset them,” he said. And while there will be disagreements, I think that’s what it has to take for us to trust the police and for the police to trust us.”

Because until that happens, he said there will be officers who see him only as a stereotypical young Black man. 

“We do have deep down inside of us that fear of, you know, if this police is, like, bad or not, if they're willing to take our lives,” Jeremiah said.

He’s seen all the videos of police violently arresting suspects. “A lot of us African Americans, we’re arrested violently. There will be one person, there's six cops holding the gun at us,” he said. “It doesn't take all that.”

"A lot of us African Americans, we're arrested violently. There will be one person, there's six cops holding the gun at us," said Jeremiah Williams. "It doesn't take all that."
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

The three were sixth-graders when a white Ferguson police officer killed Michael Brown, “right around the corner,” as Karl remembers it, which in part sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. They remember the start of school being postponed. Karl went to a protest, the same one Nelly attended.

“I just hope that any police officers take this into thought when arresting anybody, it doesn't matter if it’s Black or white because cameras, I guess, always rolling,” Karl said.

He hasn’t been to any of the recent protests, but some relatives and friends have.

The fear and misunderstanding is why Suriyya said there need to be more compassionate officers on the streets. That’s the kind of officer she wants to be.

“I want to be the police officer that everybody could call on. Like, if somebody is having a problem and they call dispatch, they can say I want Miss Lawrence there and no other cop, you know?” she said.

Of the three teens, only Suriyya for sure wants to be a police officer. And if people keep questioning her choice, she has this response:

“If we want change in the world, why don’t we become the change? Why don’t we go into the police force and teach them how they’re supposed to treat us?”

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly spell Suriyya Lawrence's first name.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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