(Photo by Tony Abraham)
There’s a seasoned public defender working inside the Philadelphia Police Department. Believe it or not, they asked her to be there.
After 16 years with the Defender Association — time largely spent representing juveniles in court — attorney Rhonda McKitten now finds herself representing juveniles from the other side of the law. McKitten’s Stoneleigh Foundation fellowship will have her improving the ways in which police officers interact with youth of color for the next three years.
“There’s definitely a divide between police and the defense bar,” McKitten said. And though many public defenders and police officers share stances on big issues like racial and ethnic disparity, they “don’t always agree on how to accomplish different goals.”
That’s the dilemma McKitten will attempt to remedy in her new position. But it’s not exactly uncharted territory: She’s actually spent the past six years or so laying the groundwork.
Public defenders and police officers don't always agree on how to accomplish certain goals relating to racial and ethnic disparity.
In 2010, McKitten helped develop and coordinate Pennsylvania Disproportionate Minority Contact (PADMC), a program designed to bridge the gap between officers and youth of color by having them engage each other in an open forum.
“Even beyond just policing, disparities in the justice system can be really complex,” McKitten said. For instance, police are deployed to areas where the highest rates of serious crime happen. That makes sense, she said, but having a higher density of law enforcement in one area can impact it in damaging ways.
Though she’s only a few weeks into her fellowship and still in the midst of observing police training systems as they currently stand, McKitten said she’ll eventually look to develop cultural competency and reinforce the fact that adolescents are still very much in the throes of emotional and cognitive development.
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“What we’ve seen from data is that historically a lot of those low-level [issues] seem to escalate because one or both sides are maybe not as aware of why the other person is acting the way they are,” she said.
That communication breakdown can lead to arrest or injury — conflicts McKitten’s position exists to help prevent. It helps that there’s a “willingness to collaborate” within the juvenile justice system, she said.
“People are really interested in finding ways to help young people. I think, across the board, no matter where you come from in the system, if we can turn a young person around, it will bear fruit for a long time,” McKitten said. “Police have so much power to change the way kids interact with the system. They’re really the gatekeeper.”-30-
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