Erika D. Smith

Diversity in criminal justice is about more than just cops

Students participate in a Sacramento County-run Youth Academy, designed to entice more people into careers in criminal justice.
Students participate in a Sacramento County-run Youth Academy, designed to entice more people into careers in criminal justice. Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office

One by one, the teenagers in skinny jeans and suit jackets and sun dresses filed past their parents and worked their way to the front of a room at the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Community Service Center.

“I used to want to be, like, a physics teacher or something,” one young woman said, “but now I want to work in a crime lab.”

“I’m thinking about being a prosecuting attorney,” a young man said.

If the hype is to believed – the headlines about how people of color are wary of the cops and how the cops unfairly target people of color – this would be the last group of teenagers anyone would expect to see smiling, surrounded by police officers, sheriff’s deputies, prosecuting attorneys and probation officers.

Many of the teenagers were black. Many others were Hispanic and Asian. And some were white.

But there they were last Thursday evening. Fifty-seven teenagers of all different backgrounds accepting certificates for completing a new Youth Academy put on by the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office.

“I wanted a diverse group of people,” said Deputy District Attorney Ruanne Dozier, who came up with the idea for the Youth Academy, “and that’s what we got.”

Teens from 46 schools, from Sacramento High to Florin High to Elk Grove High, took part. Dozier got so many applications that she had to run one Youth Academy in south Sacramento and one in North Sacramento.

For six months, she and other employees of the county and city spent hours teaching the teens about how homicide investigations play out in courtrooms, how gang violence is prosecuted and how science plays a big role in processing crime scenes.

They talked about domestic violence and stalking and the abuse of marijuana. And they talked about use-of-force policies, and how and why things can sometimes come to blows on the streets.

“We wanted kids to understand that officers aren’t just out there shooting people. They are trained in de-escalation,” Dozier said. “That was one of the goals: To get rid of the myth that they’ve heard on social media about cops.”

The result? Fifty-seven teenagers with a clearer understanding of how the criminal justice system works and, better yet, 57 teenagers with a strong interest in pursuing some sort of career in criminal justice.

As one young woman said while accepting her certificate Thursday: “This has really pushed me to consider a career in law. I want to be a public defender,” drawing loud applause from the public defenders sitting at the back of the room.

In this era of Black Lives Matter, and Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Cleveland and now, Chicago with a blistering new report calling out deep-seated racism in that city’s Police Department, getting a teenager to say that is no easy feat.

It’s also a reason for hope.

It’s no secret that Sacramento, despite the city being home to an extremely diverse population, has struggled to build a Police Department that reflects that. Way back in 2003, 73 percent of those on the force were white. A decade later, 75 percent of officers were white.

Some, but not much has changed since then, even though Mayor Kevin Johnson has pushed through a series of reforms to address diversity in the department’s ranks. Among them, a new Community Police Commission, with a mission to build bridges between the police and the community.

These things take time. And, unfortunately, reports like the one released earlier this week, which found black and Latino drivers in California are disproportionately stopped and arrested for driving with suspended licenses, don’t help.

It’s hard to make the case that in order for racial bias in criminal justice to truly go away, more people of color must get involved and start working from within the system. And not just as police officers on the beat, but as detectives, prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and judges.

Because while it’s the police officer who can stop you and decide whether to arrest you or give you a ticket with hefty fines and fees, it’s the prosecuting attorney who has the discretion to decide how to charge you. And the judge who has some leeway in assigning bail or letting you go. And the sheriff’s deputy who will deal with you in jail and the corrections officer in prison. And it’s the probation officer who will handle you when you get back on the streets.

The 57 teen graduates of the Youth Academy seem to get that. Let’s hope they’ll teach others to do the same.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith