It’s tough to be a police officer in the United States today.
It’s also tough to be a teen.
The news out of South Carolina in the last day or two has been about confrontations between police and teens. In one case, that of 19-year-old Zach Hammond, the state investigation into his shooting death last July at the hands of an officer has concluded that no state law was violated. While Tenth Circuit Solicitor Chrissy Adams did not say so in her brief official statement, one suspects she concluded that the officer had reasonable fear of serious harm to himself.
In another, a swift investigation into the violent removal of a teen girl from a classroom by a school resource officer in Columbia seems likely to result in further disciplinary action. Not because force was used, but because of the nature of the force: the officer flipped the student over while she was still in her desk, then dragged her and may even have thrown her across the classroom floor.
Just to answer the race question (which is appropriately asked in these cases), Zach Hammond and the officer who shot him are both white, as is the school resource officer in the Columbia case. In that case, the student is black.
This pair of cases in the news yesterday makes me think less about race and more about the state of youth (and our attitudes toward them).
Teenagers can be among the world’s most amazingly caring, hard-working, capable humans. They also can be monsters capable of inflicting great physical and psychological harm.
The same teen, in fact, can be both in the span of a relatively short period of time.
Today, we know that one cause of this adolescent Jekyll/Hyde phenomenon is physiological. In addition to the hormones that kick in at puberty, the brain itself enters into a period of explosive and, in some senses, chaotic growth. Thousands of new and untested neural connections are generated as the mind strives to cope with the new sensations, capacities and demands of emerging adulthood. It isn’t that your teen is crazy; all teens are . . . at least to some extent, and at least some of the time.
They feel things with great intensity . . . and don’t know what they feel. They experience physical transformations and capacities that are overwhelming in their power to affect their moods and their life chances. And they experience increasing freedom . . . whether they are ready for it or not.
That freedom may have led a young Zach Hammond to take a girl/girlfriend to a Hardees for some burgers and some pot. When he saw the police cruiser pull up behind him, lights flashing, he may have panicked. He certainly attempted to flee, in the car, with a teen girl in the seat on his right and an officer with a drawn pistol on his left.
He’ll never do that again.
Those intense and not yet managed feelings may have led that teen girl in a Columbia classroom to mess with her phone, and then with her teacher. As the intensity of the situation escalated (a school administrator was called into the class before the resource officer), her emotions also may have intensified. When the officer allegedly informed her that either she would leave of her own free will or he would make her leave, it well may be that they were all past the point of no return.
I’m not writing to excuse what either teen did or may have done in the moments, days, weeks or months before these incidents. Nor am I writing to blame them for the violence wrought upon them.
I’m just saying that something has gone very, very wrong when the only option for dealing with adolescents seems to be force.
Violence begets violence. Teach a teen that the use of force is an appropriate means to achieve an objective, and when they have the capacity to use force, they’re likely to do so.
Teach them that reason, and patience, and compassion, and forbearance are the key to leading others to better choices, and . . . well, perhaps they’ll live to adulthood and make it a fine one.