NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A teenager was walking home from school near 19th Street and Armistead Avenue in October 2018 when two Norfolk police officers stopped him.
“The police come up to him, and he has headphones on. He didn’t hear them,” said Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth), the teen’s attorney.
Scott and Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone disagree about what happened next. Scott said the police officers grabbed the teen, and he yanked away from them because he was startled. Boone said the teen hit one of the officers twice, then refused to follow their commands.
What Scott and Boone do agree on is how the officers responded: They pepper-sprayed the teenager and handcuffed him. Part of the encounter was caught on camera and posted to Facebook.
“They pepper-sprayed him. Used force to get him down,” Scott said. “He’s a big kid. He’s 6-foot 5 inches at the time. He’s 16 years old, and they went too far. That’s what happens sometimes with these interactions.”
Boone said the officers stopped the teen as part of an investigation into a string of more than 200 car larcenies in the area. The stop happened around 12:50 p.m., which was before area high schools let out for the day, so the officers also suspected him of truancy. Scott said the teen had permission to walk home from school.
A police report lists that October 2018 stop as a “suspicious situation.” That stop is one of 13 times since August 2016 that suspicion led Norfolk officers to stop teenagers and use force on them. All of those teenagers were Black, according to data released by the NPD.
“I don’t run from this data,” Boone said. “I knew it would look the way it looks, and under no circumstances am I saying these officers are doing something ill of heart. I don’t believe that. What I do believe, based on what I see at night, based on our data: We have to make those contacts, and sometimes they don’t look good.”
Watch 10 On Your Side’s exclusive interview with Boone in its entirety here:
Suspicious situations aren’t the only cases that have led Norfolk police officers to use force on minors. 10 On Your Side investigators analyzed the department’s use of force data and found that Norfolk officers reported using force on minors between the ages of 10 and 17 years old more than 270 times since 2016. In 86% of those incidents, the minors were Black.
“Clearly that data shows we have more contact with the African American population, and I’ll be honest with you, anecdotally we didn’t need any data to realize that. We kind of knew,” Boone said.
Kristin Henning, author of “The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth,” said those statistics reflect a pattern of policing seen across America.
“It’s not surprising because it’s very much consistent with what we see across the country: That African American youth are more likely to experience use of force with police officers,” Henning said.
Henning said that Black and white adolescents face the same issues of maturation that can lead to clashes with authority: They’re impulsive, reactive, emotional, and fairness fanatics. Henning said that society tends to be forgiving of those impulses when the youth are white, but less so when they are Black.
“But when we think about normal adolescent behaviors among Black and brown youth, we are much more likely to perceive those behaviors as threatening, as criminal,” Henning said. “We respond in that way by arresting, stopping, frisking them. Using force when a child talks back, instead of recognizing adolescent responses.”
While the issue of racial disparity in policing isn’t unique to Norfolk, but the access to detailed data is. Norfolk police released a use of force database this summer — a year after protesters camped outside city hall and demanded transparency.
“The community demands to know what’s going on within their department … which is why we got the database up in a relatively short time, and we wanted to be bold about it. We’re not hiding anything,” Boone said.
Norfolk’s use of force database is a first of its kind in Hampton Roads. It’s updated daily and provides detailed information about why a person was stopped, what type of force was used on them, and the demographic information about the citizens and officers involved.
Other local departments publish general use of force statistics annually.
“I want to commend the Norfolk Police Department, for one, capturing the data, and for releasing it. More police departments need to do that across the country. But you ask the critical question: What do we do with the data? I think more than anything, this has to be a call to action,” Henning said.
A call to action that Boone says is already underway in Norfolk. The department asked the Center for Policing Equity to evaluate its data and to determine the adverse impacts it has on the city’s Black population. Researchers from the center will make recommendations that could change department policy. Norfolk is also exploring the possibility of establishing a citizen review board to help with police oversight.
“I want the citizens of Norfolk to know they have a very professional police department. Do we always get it right? No, I’d be lying if I said we did. But 99% of the time we do, so that’s why I have nothing to hide,” Boone said.
To look at the NPD’s use of force database, visit the city’s open data portal here.