MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Twelve Somali teenagers spent the last several weeks conducting mock traffic stops, touring the jail, trying on SWAT gear and investigating a fake crime scene — all part of a Minneapolis police Citizens’ Academy designed just for them.
The teens, ages 14 to 16, graduated from the Minneapolis Police Department Somali Youth Citizens’ Academy on Monday, with a little more knowledge about how the police department and criminal justice system operate, and why authorities act as they do.
“I’m hoping that these kids will become ambassadors and mentors in their community,” said Officer Jeanine Brudenell, the department’s liaison with the East African community. “Maybe they’ll encourage other people to cooperate with the criminal justice system because they understand it better.
“They are going to be the future leaders in the community, so we definitely have to connect with them,” she said.
Reports of gang violence, armed robberies, murders — and most recently, human trafficking — have plagued Somali youth. Federal authorities have also been investigating the travels of roughly 20 young Somali men, believed to have returned to their homeland to join a terror group.
The police department and the Somali community have been working to steer youth in positive directions. The Somali Youth Citizens’ Academy was born after Abdirahman Mukhtar, a youth coordinator at Brian Coyle Community Center, asked for it.
Police had increased their presence in Somali neighborhoods. And while it was appreciated by the elders, some youth felt they were being harassed. Mukhtar thought a class would help youth understand why police make the decisions they do — whether dealing with curfew violations, trespassing or emergency situations.
“Also, that relationship, that contact, will also change the police perspective about young people,” Mukhtar said. “Not every kid is a bad kid. It goes both ways.”
Brudenell said the kids came to class filled with “rapid-fire” questions — many of them about situations they had seen on television shows such as “CSI” or “Law and Order.”
“Some of their expectations of what officers should do were based on what they see on TV,” she said. “I think for a lot of kids, they have a new perspective.”
Brudenell said the teens got to see what it’s like to be an officer, and learn the challenges of the job. During the traffic stop class, for example, the officer who acted like a suspect bent over in the car and the kids couldn’t see what he was doing. Many of the kids said they felt scared because they didn’t know whether the suspect had a mock weapon or not.
The class covered all aspects of the criminal justice system. The students heard from a prosecutor, a defense attorney and probation officers. They learned about the bomb squad, SWAT, forensics and technology, and how all the different parts of the criminal justice system work together.
The teens went to the classes after school and received credit toward their high school government graduation requirement.
Salah Ali, 14, said he learned about his rights as a citizen. But he also learned what it was like to stand in the shoes of a police officer: to have to make a split second decision, not knowing whether a suspect has a gun or not.
“You gotta put your feet in the other person’s shoes,” he said. “If I put my feet in the police officer’s shoes, I see it’s challenging, and it’s dangerous and it’s hard.”
Sixteen-year-old Mohamed Mohamed agreed, saying he learned the importance of cooperating with police. Crimes can be solved faster, he said, if people cooperate instead of ignoring the police, or acting stupid.
“It’s very logical,” Mohamed said. “If you don’t collaborate, it’s just going to make things harder.”
Mohamed said he never really thought much of police before he took the class. But now, he said, he’d talk to other kids who might be confused about what police are doing.
“Now I have a reason to care,” he said.
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