Footage of an 8-year-old unnamed Black child in Northside, Syracuse being detained by white police officers over stealing a bag of chips went viral last week. Now that much of the hype and subsequent outrage has died down, locals in Syracuse are reflecting on the state of community policing and the underlying “distrust” that still needs to be addressed in the city.
Most advocates agreed that the relationship between community and police has been positively moving forward over the years, but there’s still room for progress.
“When the online video was first shared with me on Monday, I was concerned. I asked Chief Buckner and the SPD to review all body-worn camera footage, which is ongoing. Officers were responding to a call for a larceny that had just occurred at a nearby business. Based on what I have seen, the body camera footage demonstrates no handcuffs were used by officers at any time,” said Mayor Ben Walsh in a statement.
In a later press conference the mayor released police footage aiming to give more context to the situation. In the police videos, the child was placed in the back of a patrol car and he and his brothers were taken home to their father. They discussed the incident all together without filing any charges. “What occurred demonstrates the continuing need for the city to provide support to our children and families and to invest in alternative response options to assist our officers,” said Walsh.
Clifford Ryan runs the OG’s Against Violence non profit and violence interrupter program. He’s known in Syracuse for holding a sign advocating against violence while walking the streets. He said that the reception on the video was mixed in the community. He said the real problem is the image of a young Black child being subjected to bad treatment by a police officer resonates nationwide with communities in the current social climate.
“That interaction with that child immediately traumatized the kid and that’s what you saw in the video. You saw a kid frightened for his life because of the demeanor of the officer,” said Ryan.
He felt that the cops and the bystander who filmed the incident, Kenneth Jackson, didn’t do a great job in de-escalating the situation at all. Ryan said the majority of the officers will let kids go in the case of petty theft, especially if they have a preexisting relationship, but that still doesn’t justify a cop “manhandling” a child. He said he would have handled the situation differently as a bystander as well. Both the cops and the bystander could have been more “professional,” he said.
“From my perspective the individual that was on the scene that was doing all that cussing and foul language at the police. He could have handled that situation better as well,” said Ryan.
Ryan said during the 2020 protests for George Floyd in Syracuse, he worked hard to stop any violence or rioting against the police. He posited that calming the interaction between youth and police is pivotal in preventing any kind of trauma and violence towards cops or Black and Brown youth. “I would have made him apologize to the store owners and we would’ve nipped that in the bud without him having to go through the trauma of a police officer physically restraining him,” said Ryan.
Ryan as well as others have engaged the police in forums about community policing and holding racism dialogues with cops to get a grasp on the community’s history of distrust.
Syracuse was actually home to many early abolitionists, Black soldiers, local religious leaders, and civil rights advocates dating all the way back to 1823, according to the Urban League of Onondaga County, Inc. Black families migrated north for factory jobs and to take advantage of thriving community life, sports, and social organizations. However, because of the effects of racism, redlining, poverty, and policing, the Black community has suffered setbacks over time.
Activist Lekia Hill is a Black woman in tech, app developer, and a community leader in Syracuse. “There’s a lot of history in Syracuse that people should really know about. It’s crazy. If someone took the time to delve into what this area and this community is,” said Hill. “We were labeled number one in concentrated poverty in 2015 and the needle hasn’t moved.”
Hill has two kids; one is 22 and one is 13. She thinks the cops did the right thing bringing the child home, but criticized the way they did it. She said “yoking up” a young kid isn’t a proper process even if they know him and he has committed other minor offenses. Hill said as a Black mother of Black children she could understand reacting viscerally to seeing a Black child seemingly getting arrested, but as a leader she believes in taking a deep breath to analyze a situation.
Hill said it’s important to start empathizing and shifting the narratives for policing in impoverished Black communities. “These sound bites we have from the ’60s and throughout the ’80s are still relevant but up to a point because now this generation is different,” said Hill.
Former Syracuse Police Chief Kenton Buckner, who advocates said was pretty “progressive” in his policing policies, officially resigned fairly quickly after the viral video hit.
Jimmy Oliver, director of community engagement for Syracuse Police Department, said that the chief’s untimely resignation was “unrelated” to the viral video of the child being detained. Oliver said that Buckner was a “fantastic” leader who was an outsider and made changes in the department “for the good.”
Oliver said he’s a civilian and not a police officer in his role as community director. Oliver said historically the relationship between Syracuse police and the community has not been good, and that it will take time to see real impacts and effective change. “Could we have done things better? Absolutely on both sides,” said Oliver. “The mayor alluded to this and so did the chief. That was a good outcome. We brought the kids home to their parents.
Had a conversation with parents and kids. It was a win-win.”
Oliver highlighted the implementation of the city’s Police Athletic League (PAL) program in June 2021. PAL is meant to emphasize more positive interactions with police and youth through sports, mentorship programs, and community events.
“We’ve had over 125 officers engage our youth not just from SPD but from different departments,” said Oliver. “We believe putting our kids in front of different boroughs will be beneficial to them down the road to help them begin to move from this distrust to trust. And we’re planting seeds every single day to do that.”
Oliver said that the child that was detained and his brothers were PAL soccer kids.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w