Relations between the police and community have been tested in recent years; however, Towson University's Total Tiger Program, which aims to "educate, advocate, mentor and serve" Towson's student-athletes, has taken an alternative approach toward addressing this issue.
"What Towson University saw was a different perspective," said Officer Gary Doucett of the Baltimore County Police Department, who has spoken to the Towson men's basketball team each of the past two years about how to best interact with police. "They saw us as just like anybody else -- human beings. But they also saw the fact that you can come to us if you have a question or a problem. So, I even told the young men ... ‘Get in touch with me. Let me know. If you have a concern, let me know.'"
As part of the Towson program, Doucett met with members of the basketball team for more than an hour in July. According to the school, the conversation centered on ongoing police-community relations around the world.
"The police come in, and [the student-athletes] get to see them as people, as young men," said Antwaine Smith, the assistant athletic director for the Total Tiger Program. "But also, our guys get to see police as [people], as well, and kind of learn how to conduct themselves, carry themselves. Relationship building, it humanizes both sides."
The word "humanize" was a recurring theme, as so often this debate is reduced to statistics. However, July 2016 served as a microcosm of both side's fears. That month saw the widely publicized police-involved shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana, followed shortly by the killing of five Dallas police officers at a previously peaceful protest.
Smith said the conversations with the police officers give the student-athletes a chance to vocalize their concerns about being "vulnerable out in the world."
"The visit with Officer Doucett cleared up a lot of things for me and my teammates," said Eddie Keith, a junior forward for the Tigers. "It opened their eyes up a lot about what you can and can't do -- or what you should do -- and how to handle certain situations."
For Keith, a criminal justice major at Towson, the conversation was particularly interesting. As a child, after the requisite dream of professional sports, his next choice was, and remains, law enforcement. Ever since roughly third or fourth grade when he would watch the true-crime show "The First 48," Keith said he wanted to be a homicide detective.
While Keith now prefers the secret service or FBI as a prospective career, he understands the actions of a few police officers can't and shouldn't be held against the entire profession.
"As an African-American male in society -- as African-Americans in general -- I think we can't [assume] every cop is out to get us, because that's not the case," Keith said. "Every time, there's going to be bad apples once you get up in higher spots and people have power."
Doucett said community engagement is paramount when it comes to quality policing. He also said he's never had a problem in that department, describing children "bombarding" his and his partner's squad car when they're on patrol because they are happy to see them.
"We love it. I mean, we actually smile and laugh at each other when we see that. So, we know we're having a positive effect on not only the young people, but the teenagers and the young adults who attend Towson University who are out on the street, as well."
Unfortunately, not everybody can interact with officers, like Doucett, in these settings, but it's something Smith hopes becomes more of a trend.
"Let's say that young man did do something wrong, and he was caught by the police. ... He may say, ‘I know this kid; he's a good guy,'" Smith said. "With all of it, it's really just about the engagement and opportunity to get to know each other better."
Moving forward, those student-athletes have the opportunity to pass along these same lessons.
"Like I told them, I've never met a bunch of young men like them that were focused on what they were doing and they were all -- they were a team," Doucett said. "I was more than happy to participate with them, because they're good guys. They are what Towson University needs."
"You want to see change -- you want to do this, you want to be that, you want to make that happen -- you've got to be the change. [Your race] doesn't matter," Keith said. "Work toward being the change instead of talking about it."
Issue 225: September 2016