Greg Brown said he will never forget that summer afternoon when he and three friends playing basketball in a predominantly white neighborhood in Anne Arundel County were asked by police to produce proof of residency.
“We got singled out. I felt marginalized. I felt really upset,” said Brown, 19. “It is an event that stuck with me.”
His experience — and the story of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August — inspired the University of Maryland sophomore and fellow students to meet campus and Prince George’s County police officers on the basketball court Sunday.
The event’s organizers, the student group Do Better, said the game was an effort to address the tension created by the Aug. 9 shooting in Ferguson and to change the negative perceptions young black men and police officers often have of each other.
“This is not Ferguson. It’s really not, but we do have similar problems,” said freshman Julian Ivey, 19. “We are more likely to go to prison, we are more likely to be stopped by police officers, we are more likely to be assaulted by police officers. It is sad that it is true, but it is the truth.”
Ivey recalls an encounter he had with campus police on the morning of Aug. 30. It was his first day at the University of Maryland, and as he left the university’s welcome center, two police officers stopped him and told him he matched the description of a suspect they were seeking.
Ivey said he knew not to argue — he had learned this from his father, former Prince George’s County state’s attorney Glenn Ivey. Like many young black men, he’d been taught to avoid confrontation and remain calm when dealing with police in situations where he felt profiled. In the aftermath of Ferguson, the younger Ivey said, he also knew he needed to be extra careful.
He was held back a few minutes and questioned, Ivey said, and he left the encounter wanting to change the experience of young black men on- and off-campus who live in fear of being singled out simply for the color of their skin. His group’s mission, he said, is not only about building trust with U-Md. police, but with law enforcement in general.
By 3 p.m. Sunday, the basketball court on Farm Drive was packed with players and spectators. A half-dozen patrol cars were parked on the grass. Girls with pompoms cheered on the sidelines, while students and officers faced off on the court.
Scores were greeted with high-fives and shouts of “Do better.” When Adam Daniel, 20, fouled Prince George’s police officer Garrett Askew and other team members began to shout “Oh, oh, trouble,” Daniel turned his grasp on Askew’s arm into a five-second hug.
“That was me saying I am sorry,” said Daniel, a junior who said the game was his first experience interacting with police officers. “Now, I feel like he is my friend.”
Boosting trust is a nationwide challenge for police, particularly among communities of color. A Pew Research Center and USA Today survey done after the Ferguson shooting found that most Americans give police departments low marks for holding officers accountable for misconduct, using appropriate force and for treating racial and ethnic groups equally.
Seven in 10 blacks said police departments do a poor job in holding officers accountable for misconduct and treating racial and ethnic groups equally. Nearly 6 in 10 African Americans gave police departments low marks for using the right amount of force, according to the poll.
“What happened in Ferguson, of course, is not good because it makes all police officers look bad,” said Lt. August Kenner, an 18-year veteran of the University of Maryland Police Department. The agency understands the concerns of the community and tries to build a rapport, she said.
“Basketball is one way that we can get the teenagers’ attention and say, ‘Hey, we are police, but we are human, too,’ ” said Kenner, who is black.
Sgt. Joel Powers, a U-Md. police officer and the only white officer playing Sunday, said that besides getting a good workout, he also hoped the event would help take away some of the negative perceptions young black men have of police officers.
“This isn’t going to solve everything,” Powers said. “Unfortunately, there’s always bad eggs mixed in. But it at least allows people to see the fact that it is not everyone. There are those of us that are trustworthy. There are those of us that are here for the good, and we are not out there to get people. I didn’t get into this job to do harm to people, I got in this job to help people.”
Michael Brown’s killing, which sparked clashes between police and protesters in the St. Louis suburb, has resonated across the United States. In the Washington area, communities have held vigils, marches and rallies demanding justice for Brown.
At the University of Maryland, student and university police have come together at multiple forums. Chief David B. Mitchell has assured students of the department’s strict policy against the use of force and police brutality, and officers have listened to students' concerns. Students have shared their experiences with police, asked why officers are not armed with body cameras, and discussed fears of rising racial tensions since Ferguson.
“As tragic as the events are, and we saw them unfold in Ferguson, they present an opportunity for us as a nation to come together with our communities to talk and dialogue about feelings, about fear, about how we can make society better,” Mitchell said Sunday as he stood on the sidelines and cheered the players.
Greg Brown said: “I hope the next time someone sees a cop, they don’t automatically think negatively of them. But they can say, ‘Hey, that guy was my teammate on the court last Sunday,’ or ‘Hey, I remember joking with him or talking about past experiences.’
“When a cop comes across someone of a different culture, I hope they are not quick to some rush decision but try to understand that person.”