As a police officer of black and Latino descent, Roberto Peguero said he often felt like he had two skins.
There was the skin of his uniform, which provided him a certain sense of authority. But when he took his uniform off, people perceived him differently.
“Even as a police officer, I always had that fear of police interaction,” said Peguero, who has since retired from his job as an Albany police officer.
Peguero and three others made up a panel Thursday night that focused on educating young people about how to engage with police and other authority figures. The panelists encouraged those in attendance to know their rights and to take precautions not to escalate situations that can often be tense.
The panel drew about 25 attendees, including Schenectady City Council members Leesa Perazzo and Marion Porterfield, Schenectady’s Affirmative Action Officer Ron Gardner, and about 10 young men and women. It took place in the Mount Olivet Baptist Church and was organized by the county’s Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition.
“This is probably one of the most serious issues facing our youth,” said Brian Wright, a panelist and member of the coalition.
Interactions with police are more scrutinized than ever, he said, noting that in some cases, a single wrong word or movement can change someone’s life forever.
As a result, each panelist shared tips about how best to deal with police and what might be done to improve community relations with law enforcement.
Peguero drew on his experience as a police officer in Albany, saying that, in most cases, officers are just as nervous arriving at a scene as the subjects they’re approaching. Police interactions are naturally stressful, he said, which means an unexpected movement or comment can escalate things.
His advice to attendees was to comply with officers’ instructions, and if they feel uncomfortable sharing information, respectfully decline.
“If you’re wronged, on the street isn’t the time to deal with it,” added Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany.
There are alternative formal means to take up a complaint, she said, such as the court system or the Civilian Police Review Board. Green also encouraged attendees to know their rights and not consent to illegitimate searches or admit to doing something wrong if they didn’t.
She listed statistics to illustrate that the criminal justice system disproportionately affects minorities, saying well over half of people in local prisons are black or Latino.
Prince Sprauve, the executive director at Told By Us Productions, a local organization that seeks to strengthen communities by creating music and films, was asked how community-police relations could be improved.
He expressed frustration with those who suggest the public needs to do more to build relationships with officers. Some officers meet a person on the worst day of their life, he said, and then form an opinion about a community based on that interaction.
Instead, Sprauve said police should work on being proactive rather than reactive. It’s a systemic issue that reaches beyond Schenectady, he said.
While that may be the case, Rev. Horace Sanders, who moderated the panel, said immediate solutions are still an important part of the conversation.
“There is work to undo systemic problems, but we need to give our youth tools to handle these situations,” he said.