Police hire youth-relations consultant for officers

By Jason Graziadei

I&M Senior Writer Looking to improve the Nantucket Police Department’s relationship with the island’s youth, chief Bill Pittman has hired a consultant to work with both his full-time and summer officers on their interactions with teenagers and young adults.

In the aftermath of an incident on Broad Street in the summer of 2007 that ended with accusations of excessive force and alleged racial remarks by a summer officer to a group of boys, as well as a civil-rights lawsuit filed against the town and 10 police officers, Pittman said the systemic issue that needed to be addressed was the department’s interaction with island youth.

For Pittman, the only problem became culling the vast number of consultants who were vying to provide their services to the department.

“I had no shortage of people calling up offering us all kinds of stuff. As soon as the story hit the Boston papers, the phones were off the hook with anyone who had a program,” Pittman said. “The issue wasn’t as clear as just race, the issue was really about the police and our interactions with youth on Nantucket, across the board.”

Pittman chose consultant Lisa Thurau, of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Strategies For Youth, who has spent the last few months analyzing the island, its youth and the department’s internal review of the Broad Street incident.

Thurau recently completed training the department’s fulltime officers, and intends to conduct a similar training program for the 40 summer-special officers who will soon be patrolling the island.
“What we wanted to do with the training was equip them to anticipate resistance and know how to deal with it in a very proactive, calm way,” Thurau said. “Especially in a place like Nantucket, with a burgeoning number of immigrant youths living here, who come from different perspectives and histories of interaction with police, and in a place where you cannot make assumptions about how kids will act or what they think the rules are.”

Thurau went into Nantucket High School and spoke with 30 students about their views of police officers on Nantucket and found widespread beliefs about the appropriate way to interact with law enforcement.

“Kids on Nantucket have very different visions of police and you can’t assume anything about them because some are quite fearful, and some are not,” Thurau said. “This is a very diverse population with a very different sense of how to behave with adults generally, and police. “Our training focuses on why kids get into police officers’ faces, and how a police officer needs to deal with it,” she continued. “We use a psychiatrist because they’re especially good at deescalating without the use of force. We have them teach a couple tricks, like distraction, a change in the tone of voice, physical distance and simple techniques to de-escalate that kind of anger in a youth.”

In addition to the training, Pittman is drafting a new policy for officers with regard to all their interactions with the island’s young people. The department’s only previous guideline regarding juveniles was that they could not be placed in a holding cell with adult suspects. The new policy advises officers to be cognizant of their relationship with young people, and how they interact with them.

“We added things that say ‘Officers should be aware that each interaction with a youth is an opportunity to develop relationships with the youth and promote a positive, long-term relationship with the police on Nantucket and elsewhere’,” Pittman said. “This will help focus officers where they should be.

“My officers have learned, what is a teenager? A teenager is a machine built for rebellion,” Pittman continued. “That’s what they do. They’re testing all limits of authority put on them by parents, by society, by schools, by everybody. And how you react to that is what leads to confrontations. Look at the department. Many of them are young, my summer specials, many are youths themselves. So those challenges become conflicts. We have to teach officers to recognize that, the dynamics of what a youth is, and what they’re wired to do, so to speak, and look at alternatives to dealing with that so we don’t have the confrontations. It’s a huge project that I think, in the end, will make Nantucket a model for dealing with youth.”