On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, hundreds of people marched from Harlem to the United Nations in Manhattan to protest police brutality against people of color.
Meanwhile in Brooklyn, five police officers from the 81st Precinct in Bed-Stuy were stuffing about fourteen middle and high school students into a pair of police vans before heading off to the Alpine Cinemas in Bay Ridge. They were all on their way to the Oscar-nominated film Selma — courtesy of the NYPD.
The outing was organized by the precinct’s commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Scott Henderson, after he’d learned that movie theaters across the city were offering students free tickets to see the film as part of a national initiative spearheaded by African American business executives here in New York.
“If we’re going to tell kids to stay off the streets and stay away from gangs, we have an obligation to offer them an alternative,” says Henderson, a father of three himself who lives in Queens. “There are a lot of shootings in this neighborhood, but there’s also a lot of good. We have an obligation to find that next person that’s going to do great things.”
See also: Ava DuVernay’s Selma Speaks to the Now
Henderson invited students from three nearby schools, along with his daughter and members of the precinct’s Explorer program — a youth group that teaches teenagers about law enforcement.
“We’re, like, baby cops,” said Yamila Amari, an effusive fifteen-year-old wearing bright pink lipstick. She first became an Explorer while living in the Bronx.
In one van, girls fixed their makeup, took selfies, and scrolled through their smartphones while listening to hip-hop artists like Rich Gang and Big Sean on the radio. The boys rode in the second van.
“We’re jamming,” Amari said. “Does anyone have any nail polish?”
Henderson, 44, became the 81st Precinct’s commanding officer in March last year. He says his officers have more plans to scale up their work with teens. The precinct’s youth department includes officers who make school presentations, run youth programs, and sometimes mediate conflicts to forestall arrests.
“There’s a distinction between juvenile behavior and criminal behavior committed by juveniles,” says Henderson, who has been at the department for 21 years. “I handpick my youth officers, because they need the right temperament. Kids act on impulse. They talk. I don’t want my officers to react to that.”
The youth officers have taken kids to see Brooklyn Nets games and on whitewater rafting trips in the past, but the Selma screening was the first youth event that Henderson has helped organize.
Before the film, which follows civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on his historic 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Youth Officer Cruz Pearsall, 47, said he hoped the film would show the teens how hard their forefathers had fought to secure their rights. “A lot of kids don’t have classes in African American history in school,” he said. “It’s being let go.”
As it has nationwide, Selma received a generally positive response from the group. One officer cried. One student said she was particularly moved by the film’s many portrayals of King’s speeches. Toward the end of the film, as the marchers complete their journey, a cheer ran through the theater.
Cheyenne Aponte, a fourteen-year-old student at Brooklyn Heights School of the Arts, said she enjoyed the film because it allowed her to connect to King in a new way. She said she previously related more closely to Malcolm X. When asked on the way home from the theater if she enjoyed the brief scene in which Malcolm X appeared, she hesitated.
“She fell asleep!” Amari said.
“I liked the ending!” Aponte rebutted.
“Yeah,” Amari joked. “Because that’s what you were awake for!”
At a time when the relationship between police and the communities they serve has become strained, trips like this one, Henderson says, are one way for officers to keep their focus on the neighborhood.
“People on the street stop by and say hi,” he says. “Someone brought brownies the other day. We’re here to do our jobs to help protect the city, and we’re going to keep doing it…you do it [because] you want to help people. You just continue to focus on that.”