Fifteen-year-old Ja'seon Tolliver says police officers stopped him and his friend while the police searched for a robber at a nearby store. Police asked if the two teenage boys were involved and they said no. Ja'seon says the boys cooperated with the officers' request for their information. The situation changed though, he says, when Ja'seon's friend jogged off to catch his basketball.
"The police officer reached for his gun," he recalls. "I had to shout, 'He's only running for the ball, he wasn't running away.' " In that moment, Ja'seon says he physically paused but could feel his heart pumping harder. After he yelled, he says the police stopped what they were doing.
"I just couldn't do anything else but shout," he says. "I didn't want anything to happen to me because I did the wrong thing."
This is what Ja'seon says his encounter with the police was like a few months ago.
Some Cincinnati stakeholders came together at a Youth Summit at New Prospect Baptist Church in Roselawn Wednesday to figure out how to improve youth and police relations. Young people led the conversation about possible solutions.
"We need to be those positive examples," says Dorothy Smoot, who helped organize the summit. "We need to encourage them to learn along the way so that when they take our place they are prepared. So, it can't be a 'be seen but not heard' scenario."
The event started with attendees sharing stereotypes of each other. A young person said adults always think they're right. Adults think young people talk too much and don't know what they're talking about.
One adult in the room who wants to hear what youth think is Jason Cooper. He oversees and advises the city manager on criminal justice initiatives. Cooper says being budget-focused can limit creative solutions. "Whereas with young people, they're not bound with that. They put out ideas so we can start from a place of, 'That's a great idea, what can we do to implement it?' " he says. Cooper says being creative and practical are important for improving relations between officers and teens.
At the event, young people also heard from city officials, lawyers and police officers.
Lieutenant Elena Molton joined in on conversations with the teenagers. She says it was hurtful to hear someone say they had been traumatized by police officers. "As an African American woman, I want them to feel like we are there for them," Molton says. But, she adds, when she was younger, she feared police officers and thought they only talked to her because they thought she had done something wrong.
Gracie Perez-Vasquez is a 16-year-old from East Price Hill. "Police officers could go to the playground and play with the kids there," she suggests. "They could be more active, so that way young people won't see them as something that triggers them to have fear." She says having those interactions will help young people see officers' humanity.
Ja'Seon says he hopes other teenagers will leave with a new perspective of police officers. Lt. Molten says such changes are part of her job description.
"One of the things that our city has committed (to) is the Collaborative Agreement and problem-solving," she says, referring to the 2002 agreement the city signed to improve police-community relations after the riots in 2001. "That's with all the citizens in our city. Young people are citizens."