Commentary: Rights, responsibilities, police and youths

Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz escorts Black Lives Matter march, July 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz escorts Black Lives Matter march, July 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz escorts Black Lives Matter march, July 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown Police Chief Pete Demnitz escorts Black Lives Matter march, July 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

By Marie Pfeifer

A few months ago, in the aftermath of the latest police shooting tragedy, my daughter, Arlene, who graduated from Mendham High School in 1980, reminded me of a civics class called Rights and Responsibilities.

During her high school years it was taught by local police and the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office. I believe the Bar Association had a hand in it as well.

The object of the course was to improve relations between youths and police to address problems that existed at that time.

Kids were taught how law enforcement works, and how to behave in their interactions with police.  It culminated with a mock trial in which students, lawyers and prosecutors participated, along with community leaders and parents.

What this course did, my daughter reflected, was to teach respect on both sides — respect by the law enforcers for the kids as human beings, and respect by kids for the law and the people who enforce it.

I’m just giving you a bird’s-eye view of the course. But I believe this kind of training can benefit law enforcement, youths, and people of all ages.  It also can be tailored to fit the times.

 

I have been very disturbed by national reports of police killings of kids and young adults — black and white.  So I called Mendham High School. Of course, nobody is left who participated in this course. What now is being taught is a high level, more academic law class.

I also called Morristown High School and spoke with the principal, Mark Manning, who told me they do not have a course like this. The focus is on a police presence at the school that attempts to help students with their problems.

 

After reading a story on MorristownGreen.com about problems in Morristown–problems  which, by the way, do not sound that much different from the ones we had in affluent Mendham — I believe a significant educational piece is being sadly overlooked in all of this.

It is very important to recognize that our present problems exist because young people are in need of some serious guidance and family support. And the law enforcers, in some cases, are in need of retraining.

 

Nationally, there doesn’t seem to be a voice of wisdom on either side that can turn these tragedies into true vehicles to bring about the respect for human life that is missing from all of the arrest attempts gone wrong, protest marches and media hype.

 

As I listened to NPR’s Brian Lehrer discuss the Dallas tragedy, the show was filled with callers venting. I can’t say that it’s wrong to do this. But I also feel the answer is right in front of us. It seems we are unable to recognize where to start, and what we really should be doing to bring about change.

 

The Mendham course not only enlightened my daughter about law enforcement and taught her how to behave if she were ever stopped by a policeman;  it also gave us an opportunity, as a family, to talk about problems within the community, spotlighting what we, as a family, could do to ameliorate the situation.

 

This kind of training creates the possibility for youth leaders to emerge. It may encourage them to participate more in their community, as activists in their local churches and through volunteerism and school activities, rather than getting into trouble and taunting police.

 

I am not suggesting that this course “fixed” all problems and made all teenagers models of perfection. But it turned some kids around and changed attitudes of some parents and teachers.

Morristown native Marie Pfeifer, an occasional contributor to MorristownGreen.com, has worked as a municipal clerk and a municipal court clerk. She is active at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, and resides in Bernardsville.

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