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Why Are D.C. Cops Recruiting And Deputizing High School Students?

Above Photo: Protest against racist police brutality in Washington, D.C.

On Nov. 18, in the library of Ballou Senior High school, an audience of students, parents, school faculty, journalists, and city officials gathered for a press conference held by the District of Columbia’s Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser and chief of police Robert Contee, who were at the high school to announce new legislation.

Behind the podium where Contee and Bowser gave their address stood three rows of 10 teenagers in Metropolitan Police Department cadet uniforms, most of whom were not even 18 years old. Thirty children staged behind Contee and Bowser in police uniforms provided a perfect backdrop for the announcement of the relaunch of the High School Cadet Program (HSCP), one of MPD’s many programs aimed at conditioning, propagandizing and recruiting youth: A “strategy for building and maintaining a strong pipeline” of youth into the department notorious for its brutality and racism, in addition to increasing MPD’s surveillance capacities.

Police departments across the country have some form of youth cadet program in place, which aims to not only recruit kids, but immediately deputize them as well. The “success” of this process was reflected during the Kenosha shootings where Kyle Rittenhouse, who was associated with the the Antioch Youth Police Cadet Corps, killed two anti-racist protesters.

MPD and Bowser have aggressively fear mongered about rising violent crime, homicide rates, and the weakening of law and order throughout the district as a way to legitimize their goals of increasing police funding and police presence. The HSCP, therefore becomes particularly relevant given MPD’s emphasis on its gang database and surveillance program. The “criminal takeover of D.C.” narrative justifies shadowy record-keeping practices, and infiltration of schools and neighborhoods in order for MPD “to take back the city” by carrying out widespread surveillance of children with impunity. The reinvigoration of the HSCP raises alarm bells in the context of the department’s determination to build its informant and intelligence gathering capacities.

These alarm bells have not gone unnoticed by most D.C. anti-police brutality organizers and at least some members of D.C.’s local political leadership. On Jan. 3, D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen, chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, sent Robert Contee a list of questions about the gang database given “reporting that has questioned whether MPD uses clear and transparent criteria for identifying and adding individuals – seemingly including children as young as one year old.” The council is requesting that the MPD respond by Jan. 28.

The MPD sees poor Black youth like the southeast D.C. high school students who are paraded on stage at Ballou as the target demographic for criminalization and surveillance. At the same time, they become the prey of MPD’s coercive recruitment and indoctrination practices, because they are desperate for a means out of poverty.

HSCP as the police poverty draft

First inaugurated back in 2015, reinvigorated in 2016, and financially stagnated in 2020, the HSCP is designed to “ensure that a steady stream of District of Columbia youth is actively recruited as future police officers.” A month before the start of their senior year, students become eligible to work part-time for MPD, earning $17 an hour performing both administrative and fieldwork, while being exposed to different forms of indoctrination.

Described by the Office of Muriel Bowser as a “pipeline,” HSCP sets students on a path straight from high school into the police academy. Once they get their diploma, they enter the Cadet Corps Program as full-time members and enroll in the University of the District of Columbia Community College. Tuition is not only paid for by MPD up to 60 credits, student-cadets make over $35,000 annually attending the police “academy/university.” From there, cadets are sent directly into MPD’s Police Officer Recruit Program to become full-time officers, where they make a starting salary of $65,863 once their probation period has ended.

In the mayor’s press conference and presentation about the program, she emphasized the program as a quasi-anti poverty program due to its establishment as part of the “30 million dollars invested over the next three years to reimagine work-based learning in high schools.” Mayor Bowser and Contee go as far as saying that “it will change the trajectory of their lives” because it is a “pathway out of poverty.”

The prospects of a future, seemingly free from the grinding conditions of the deprivation and poverty of life under capitalism, become irresistibly enticing to many youths in dire circumstances. It is, therefore, no surprise then that MPD programs like HSCP are anchored solely in working-class high schools whose students are overwhelmingly Black. The children of the wealthy do not have to become police officers or enlist in the military in order to pay for college or have material security in the future. Bowser and Contee throughout the conference obsessively emphasize HSCP as a program established out of the concern and benevolence of the state — youth should have the means to alleviate their conditions. So, why wouldn’t Bowser give the $3 million from the Cadet program directly to poor communities if she is seemingly so concerned about pulling them out of poverty with programs like HSCP?

This police infiltration of oppressed communities insidiously stakes an emotional appeal to these student’s belonging in the community, and their intimate first-hand experiences with the day to day violence of the police state by placing the responsibility of ending that violence on the individuals themselves. They argue that poor Black youth have a responsibility to become police officers if they don’t want racist white cops to continue to brutalize their community.

‘Community policing’ no solution

HSCP falls into a broader category of tactics known as “community policing,” oftentimes falsely presented as a solution to racist police brutality. Advocates of this strategy argue that police departments should be more diverse and culturally proficient in the neighborhoods they occupy with military force. In instances when the authority of the police are called into question, following highly publicized cases of police brutality and murder, dissent can be more easily squashed. This requires the expansion of the police state – more cops, more funding and more surveillance.

For example, the D.C. police foundation, which raises corporate monies to influence police spending and projects, boasts that, “Each District Station hosts year-round community events to include: clothing drives, Halloween safe havens, back-to-school events, and much more,” in addition to over a dozen or so youth-oriented or mentorship programs like the HSCP, Shop With a Cop, The Junior Police Academy, Metropolitan Wolverines, Reaching New Heights Youth Summer Academy, Beat the Streets, Officer Friendly Program and the Youth Advisory Council. In 2003, D.C. established the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs (MPBGC) through a merger with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. If a parent is looking for resources for their children about how to structure youth-police relationships, MPD’s website has campaigns like “Give 5-0 the 4-1-1,” which encourages children to text MPD’s tipline when they see potential illicit activity: “Good police work relies on good information from all kinds of sources to help solve a case. Oftentimes, the only person who might know something about a crime is a person who witnessed it.”

The infrastructure to provide private and federal funding for departments to carry out these programs and reforms has expanded throughout the years, allowing MPD to finance their violence independent of D.C. Council budget allocations. In 1994, President Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act established the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) under the Department of Justice, has provided over $14 billion in grants to local police departments since its founding in order to carry out “community policing reforms’” for hiring, training and recruiting. For example, the announcement of the HSCP reinvigoration came after the D.C. City Council released its FY2022 budget, which provided a $5 million increase to MPD’s annual budget — $6 million less than the mayor’s proposed $11 million increase. As a means of circumventing the official allocations and “against strong council resistance, Mayor Bowser persisted in identifying additional resources to expand the police department’s capacity resulting in a $3 million COPS grant award in December to be directed towards HSCP.

However, as urgently as Bowser is willing to identify additional resources to fund policing, that same dedication has never been reflected in areas like education, housing or healthcare. In a May 2021 statement expressing concerns over the FY2022 budget, the teachers’ advocacy group Empower Ed said: “The budget does fund $3.4 million for students to become police officers, but fails to fund our request (for a 1/3 of the price) to provide pathways to become educators. What does that say about our priorities?” This comes on the heels of a year’s worth of on-the-ground organizing, protests and hearings concerning D.C. public schools’ inadequate funding that causes an inconsistency in staffing and resources. A few years ago, DCPS even made librarians optional.

Since Bowser took office in 2015, MPD’s gross operating budget —which hovers over half a billion dollars annually —  has grown by 14 percent and remains larger than each of the budgets for affordable housing, employment services and behavioral health. By 2023, the mayor aims to increase the police force to 4,000 officers, despite D.C. being the most over-policed city in the country per capita. Bowser’s dogged allegiance and defense of the police is a threat to the working class and the Black community.

Opportunist Black politicians like Bowser time and time again offer profoundly empty displays of symbolic “pro-Blackness” like renaming a two-block section of 16th Street “Black Lives Matter” plaza. But the complete lack of meaningful action on poverty, exploitation, police terror, environmental degradation, housing and food insecurity proves that Bowser has never believed the lives of the poor and working class matter. That’s why student organizers have disrupted several MPD youth summits, organized against the presence of police in public schools, and held counter-JROTC booths. Despite the money and resources amassed by the police force — and the capitalist system it protects — working-class people at any age will not cease in struggling against it.