SCOTIA — “Do you think officers get nervous and scared?” Schenectady police officer James Plowden asked a group of Schenectady middle school boys Tuesday. “What do you think?”
The boys offered mixed answers; they didn’t seem to know.
The truth is, police officers get nervous and scared as they carry out their daily duties, which in a matter of minutes can go from picking up a doughnut to pulling over a suspected killer, Plowden said.
“We are people, too,” added Schenectady police Sgt. Nick Mannix, speaking to the students during the annual Boys Day Out Conference, held at Glen Sanders Mansion.
Around 150 seventh-graders from Schenectady’s three middle schools spent the day meeting with police, learning how to handle the challenges of growing up in Schenectady and practicing mixed martial arts. A similar event for girls is scheduled for Wednesday.
The police officers, who were later joined by Police Chief Eric Clifford, recalled the varied paths each of them followed to the police force — a sign to the Schenectady students that they, too, can become officers.
Mannix earned a musical theater degree and pursed an acting career in New York City before joining the police department in Schenectady. Plowden, who grew up in poverty in Albany, envisioned life as a professional athlete and later played college football and basketball. Detective Adriel Linyear, who works on juvenile cases, said his brother has long been in prison for something he did as a 15-year-old.
“A lot of people say you can’t be this; you can’t be that,” Plowden said, recalling how, growing up, he was told that people from his neighborhood didn’t become police officers. “There is nothing set in stone for what a police officer is.”
The point of the day's activities: Empower students to dream big and see themselves as responsible young men.
“Every one of you were chosen to be here today; don’t take that for granted. Use it for what it’s worth,” said Omar Gill, a Schenectady native who runs youth programs, as he kicked off the day with a call-and-response exercise.
“Say, I’m chosen,” Gill called on the students.
“I’m chosen,” they responded.
“Say, I’m gonna be great.”
“I’m gonna be great.”
During the panel with Schenectady police, students brought up incidents involving officers who had been physical with people the kids knew.
The students appeared comfortable speaking with the officers and didn’t shy away from the issue that police interactions with young men of color are often negative.
“I feel relief that not all cops are brutal and racist,” Oneida Middle School seventh-grader Christian Iguina said. “I understand that I can look at the bigger picture and understand that not every cop is racist and terrible.”
Christian said it wasn’t fair to define all police officers by the most violent interactions some police have with citizens.
“I can’t judge someone for something someone else did,” he said. “We believe that every sinner has a past, but that every sinner has a future. But we also believe that every saint has a past.”
The officers encouraged the students to think about what they want to do when they are older and to set goals to move them in that direction.
“What if a goal doesn’t go right?” one of the students asked.
Plowden answered the question by recalling his years as a student. A teacher once asked him and his classmates to write down the two things they wanted to do when they grew up: he wrote professional basketball player and professional football player. But she wanted him to write down another job, because she knew his chances of becoming a professional athlete were thin.
“I couldn’t get my mind around not being in the NFL or NBA,” Plowden said, recalling how he had to open his mind to the reality that his athletic dreams might not come true.
A commercial for the NCAA that ran regularly during sports games helped expand Plowden’s perspective. In the commercial, a parade of professionals — doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers and others — recite their jobs; they had all been college athletes who “went pro” in something other than the sport they played. Plowden said that commercial partly set him on the road to becoming a cop.
In another room, Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney answered a flood of questions from students interested in the legal system.
Students asked about high-profile cases around the country, including shootings at churches and in the streets of Las Vegas. Carney said gun violence was a problem for the Schenectady community and the country as a whole, urging the kids to not get involved with guns or people with guns.
“It’s like a virus,” Carney said of gun violence. “And you guys have to fight that.”