Kem Cooper, center, a former Maryland State Police trooper, speaks during a panel discussion at the 'Unlawful' Interviews/Interrogations of Minors event Sept. 20 in The EPICENTER at Edgewood. Cooper is with, from left, Edgewood High School juniors Desmond McAllister and Kylah Cain-Ward, parent and community advocate Tiffany Kelly and Alexander Williams Jr., a retired federal judge.
Kem Cooper, center, a former Maryland State Police trooper, speaks during a panel discussion at the 'Unlawful' Interviews/Interrogations of Minors event Sept. 20 in The EPICENTER at Edgewood. Cooper is with, from left, Edgewood High School juniors Desmond McAllister and Kylah Cain-Ward, parent and community advocate Tiffany Kelly and Alexander Williams Jr., a retired federal judge. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A group of concerned Harford County citizens, building off the momentum gained from a forum and panel discussion last month regarding how to best protect minors when police interview or interrogate them, will host a second gathering next week as they prepare to submit legislation in Annapolis in the 2020 Maryland General Assembly session.

“The question is, are we going to make it a local [bill] or state law,” the Rev. Marlon Tilghman said Thursday.

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The community meeting, which is open to the public, is scheduled for 6 p.m. next Tuesday at Ames United Methodist Church in Bel Air. Tilghman is pastor of Ames United Methodist, a member of the group of concerned citizens — which does not have a name yet — and the coordinator of the forum that happened Sept. 20.

About 80 people attended that forum, including a handful of local and state elected officials, held at The Epicenter in Edgewood. The event included a discussion by a five-person panel made up of high school students, community activists and people who have worked in the justice system, as well as a showing of clips from the Emmy-winning Netflix series “When They See Us.”

The four-part series, directed by Ava DuVernay, is about the odyssey of five black and Hispanic New York teens, known as the “Central Park Five,” through the justice system after they were falsely accused of raping a woman as she jogged through Central Park in the spring of 1989.

The teens, now grown men, were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison for the rape based on their confessions, which all five have said were coerced by New York Police Department investigators. The convictions of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise were overturned in 2002 after prison inmate Matias Reyes met Wise while both were in the same prison and confessed to the rape — DNA evidence from the scene matched Reyes but none of the five youths charged with the crime.

The quintet, now known as “The Exonerated Five,” settled with New York City for $41 million in 2014. More information about their case is online at the website of the Innocence Project.

“All of these young people were being interrogated without an adult present,” Tilghman said during the forum.

Tilghman, chair of the nonprofit BRIDGE Maryland Inc., was part of a 10-person planning team that put on the Sept. 20 event. Another member of that team, Marla Posey-Moss, of Aberdeen, was the mistress of ceremonies.

Posey-Moss said the group is working to draft legislation for the upcoming General Assembly session, legislation that would require a parent or other adult to be present when law enforcement officers are interviewing or interrogating a minor.

The panel included Desmond McAllister and Kylah Cain-Ward, juniors at Edgewood High School and participants in the school’s International Baccalaureate magnet program, as well as Tiffany Kelly, an advocate for children and families living in poverty, Kem Cooper, an Army veteran and retired Maryland State Police trooper, and Alexander Williams Jr. Williams spent nearly 20 years as a federal district judge in Maryland before retiring in 2014, plus he has held a number of other roles in the justice system, including as a juvenile master, assistant public defender and the elected state’s attorney in Prince George’s County.

“Young people are young people ... they don’t have the maturity and appreciation of the rights that adults have,” Williams said.

Kelly, whose young son has been questioned by police and has watched many other children and teens go through the juvenile justice system in Florida, said youths, as well as adults, of color “are being hunted like dogs.”

“Why are we calling police on children?” she asked. “These are kids!”

Kelly also spoke about the ways in which poverty can shape how youths and their caregivers interact with the justice system. She said instances in which a person stopped by police either reacts aggressively or runs away, putting them at risk of being arrested, injured or even killed, often stems from learned behaviors that ensure survival when living in poverty.

“We have an issue in this country between the classes,” Kelly said.

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Cooper and Williams, who noted they have had their own negative encounters, as black men, with police, stressed that each case involving a youth suspected of a criminal offense is different and affects how it is handled by police and the courts.

Cooper said that he worked to “talk to a person like a human being” when he was in law enforcement.

Cain-Ward, 17, of Edgewood, and McAllister, 16, of Edgewood, shared their own concerns, especially Cain-Ward, as she has a teenage brother with special needs.

McAllister said he knows peers “who are scared of these types of things very single day and [have] come to be fearful” of law enforcement.

“I empathize with them, because I know how it can feel to be a victim,” he said.

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