Black Opinions

Viewpoint: On Puberty And Policing

By Dennis Edwards

Editorial Columnist

New Journal and Guide


There are times in life when we clearly misinterpret events unfolding in front of us. Times when we overlook the obvious in pursuit of something more sinister. 

There are instances when I think we’re doing all of the above while policing teenagers in troubled and blighted neighborhoods.  


I do wonder. Are we clearly seeing what’s really going on in their lives at the moment of confrontation? Do we need to seriously consider where they are biologically? Have we thought through the possibility that where they are is where we’ve already been? Or is it simply easier to classify aggressive or rebellious behavior toward police and other authority figures as random and/or deadly hostility?

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Several years ago while interviewing for a reporter position in Houston, Texas, I asked a potential employer what he expected most from me. He liked the question. But I loved his answer. He said “just don’t miss the obvious.” Don’t miss the fact of what’s happening in front of you in pursuit of what you may think is happening. 

My fear is that we may be “missing the obvious” everyday when it comes to policing inner city and poor neighborhoods. Could it be we’re so busy looking for a “clear and present danger” that we miss the fact that boys from the ages of 10 to their early 20’s are either going into puberty, in puberty and or coming out of it?

Could it be we’re misreading the cause and effect of what’s happening right in front of us? And have we considered how lucky we are that our parents and friends didn’t use deadly force while we were trying to find our way from boyhood to manhood? 

I’m not certain this insight is new nor novel. But the implications shouldn’t be discarded simply because dealing with it requires more thought than re-action. For boys, as well as girls, puberty is a strange place. I guess that’s what makes middle school such an adventure. But on tough streets it can become the root cause of life-threatening reactions. 

In puberty, boys, in particular, tend to rebel by physically and verbally challenging authority. Usually Dad has to step in and deal with a son who’s what folks used call “smelling himself.” Boys tend to challenge their dads, uncles or older siblings to exert their new found masculinity. 

Most men my age who’ve gone through that themselves and with their sons understand what’s going on. There are times when a decisive and appropriate forceful response is needed. These are episodes where Mom and the women in our lives need to resist their inclination to coddle and cater to misbehaving sons. Just leave them to Dad and leave the room. It can get like that sometimes. 

Unfortunately, in some Black communities, fathers aren’t always there. The only consistent male authority figure these boys see are police officers. They represent boundaries boys in puberty sometimes feel compelled to challenge. The hostility police encounter much of the time has its genesis in rebellion and rebellion most often requires a firmly parental touch. You could call It a confrontational teaching moment. 

The problem is police officers, at their core, aren’t parental figures. They’re not patrolling the streets to help usher young boys into manhood. They are there to maintain law and order. Parents need to make sure their sons and daughters understand what the police are and their role in society.  Yet there are times when I wonder whether that’s all law enforcement can afford to be?  Are officers there only for that? At some level, isn’t understanding where people are a major part of what maintaining law and order really is? 

While talking with a news executive once a fascinating question was asked “What’s your philosophy for dealing with Millennials?” When able to restore my jaw to its “upright and locked position,” we talked about the need to understand where people are in their stages of life. 

I’m thinking we need to find a way to, in essence, parent them through moments they’ve never experienced. To bring perspective and clarity to situations and fears they don’t always know how to interpret. 

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Isn’t that what police officers do every day? Isn’t that what parents do for their own? And aren’t these teenaged boys and girls our own? Don’t they belong to us? 

And shouldn’t we be wise and patient enough to identify the need for love in angry eyes that are very much like ours when we were that age?

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award winning Television Investigative Journalist. He is a graduate of Suffolk High School, Virginia Union University and it’s Samuel Proctor School of Theology. Email him at

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