'Our Land': Cleveland High School Students on Community Policing

Johnny Holloway, left, and Robert Roberson, right, stand outside the main office at Outhwaite.
Johnny Holloway, left, and Robert Roberson, right, stand outside the main office at Outhwaite. (Nick Castele / ideastream)
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by Nick Castele

Johnny Holloway and Robert Roberson meet regularly with other students at Outhwaite Homes in Cleveland to take part in Teens Achieving Greatness, a leadership program for young people who live in Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority apartments. 

Robert is in the 11th grade, and Johnny is in the 10th. We sat down recently to talk about police.

“I think community policing, it should be like the police interacting with the community more often, instead of using deadly force all the time,” Johnny says. “They can take the necessary approach before using deadly force or even—like, using their strength that they don’t need to use, and they can put it toward something else that can better build a relationship between the police and the community.”

He says Cleveland isn’t close to that yet.

Robert says police can see young people playing around and misinterpret the situation.

“You can’t just be doing stuff,” Robert says. “Because the police can take anything wrong, make a big situation, make a big thing out of nothing, make it seem like you did a whole bunch of bad stuff, but it wasn’t no big deal…Say you’re playing with your friends, and they thing you’re fighting and just come slam you or something like that. Police do something like that.” He adds, “I got slammed by them before. They’ll take anything, especially when it’s close to nighttime, they’ll take anything the wrong way.”

He says when he hears about cases like the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by police, he thinks, that could happen to him.

And despite the police reform agreement Cleveland signed with the Justice Department, Johnny says he thinks police will still do what they’ve always done.

“The Justice Department is not really doing nothing in Cleveland to change what’s going on with it,” he says. “They’re just saying it so we can feel safer that the police are out, but in actuality we’re scared that if we call the police, either they’re not going to come, or they’re going to get the wrong person…And you just think, when you see the police, to either stay away from them or try to be as respectful as you can, so nothing bad happens to you.”

Johnny also says when people hear about encounters with police, they may not always hear the full story from the officer’s perspective.

If police have a bad reputation in the community, Robert says it’s because force can affect many people.

“When you slam somebody for no reason or kill somebody for no reason, yeah people are going to hate you, because you’re killing somebody that could have been them,” he says.

But Robert says police do have a role to play in Cleveland.

“They need to protect more little kids, because more little kids really get shot,” he says. “Little kids shouldn’t be getting shot…and they ain’t doing nothing about it.”

But interactions with police don’t define the lives of these two students. Robert says he likes doing projects in science class—the other day, he learned about DNA. Like a lot of high schoolers, he’s not sure exactly what he wants to do later in life. But he does want to have ownership of something. 

“I’m going to go to college for like marketing or business. I want to own something,” Robert says. “Like a company or—I don’t know, but it’s going to be something that I can call mine, though...I feel that I should own something. I don’t know, I feel that, why do other people got the right to own something or tell somebody else what to do? I want to be a boss and to make my own money.”

When Johnny graduates from college, he says, he wants to give back to Cleveland.

“I always wanted to become a paramedic, or I was thinking if not becoming a paramedic becoming an emergency room doctor,” he says. “I’ll be watching TV shows, and the adrenaline, you got to to think at that time what you need to be doing, and how you need to do it, so you can save that person’s life.”

He says he wants to succeed so, in his words, “they can stop building prisons for us.”

“Instead of building other prisons somewhere, we can build a school and let people who don’t have a lot of money come to that school and study to become a doctor or something that they want to do,” he says, “instead of them thinking that African Americans are just bad people, because we’re not.”

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