Teenagers crowded in, cellphones held aloft for selfies. “Wait for me!” shrieked one girl, rushing over to join the shot as the group squished and smiled. And at the center of the teens were two unlikely figures — Boston Police Commissioner William Evans and Superintendent in Chief William Gross.
They were gathered Tuesday night at the City on a Hill Charter School in Roxbury for a Community, Youth, and Police Conversation, attended by about 75 teenagers and 40 or so police officials, as well as other community members, who came together to discuss police and neighborhood relations.
“That’s why we’re here tonight, to ask, ‘How are we doing? Can we be better?’ ” Evans told the crowd. “I hear a lot about ‘the police don’t care, and black lives matter.’ Believe me — every life matters to the Boston Police Department.”
Evans said he had just come from a meeting with about 15 clergy members, where he asked the same questions about what the department can do to improve.
As protests have erupted across the nation in reaction to grand jury decisions not to indict white officers who killed unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and on Staten Island, N.Y., Evans said, partnerships with the community have been crucial in keeping civil actions in Boston peaceful.
“Unfortunately, what played out in Ferguson, what played in New York, that’s troubling to a lot of us,” said Evans. “We all get painted with the same brush.”
Both he and Gross praised the thousands of protesters who amassed on several different nights in Boston and demonstrated without violence and with few arrests.
“Wow, I am so proud of everyone in this room,” Gross said. “I’m so proud of your generation, especially here in Boston.”
He recounted a protest following the decision in Ferguson, when he found himself in Dewey Square surrounded by about 50 young black men and women. People thought they were “going at it,” he said.
“But guess what I was doing?” Gross asked. “I was thanking you all.”
He said he told the group to look around: nothing burning, nothing broken, nothing stolen. He told them to give themselves a hand.
Ala-Zaundria McIntosh, 18, an organizer for Teen Empowerment, whose workers facilitated the conversation on Tuesday, said she was hoping the event would bring understanding between police and young people. She opened the session with a spoken word poem.
“Our society has been broken by a mentality of, ‘you can’t trust him,’ ” she said. “We are people looking for peace and genuinity. Different sides can’t say that out loud, so we’ve become enemies.”
Another youth organizer, Tyriq Scott, 16, of Roxbury, told the crowd he is stopped by police several times a week, despite having no criminal record.
“People and police in the community think I’m gang-related because of where I live and who my friends are and how I look,” he said. “In a lot of these cases, I feel disrespected and powerless.”
However, he said, not every interaction with police has been bad. Some officers who have stopped him told him that they think teens are the future. Scott thinks the future could be positive, with both sides sitting down to talk.
At one point, organizers called on the entire group to get up and shake hands with each other, or exchange high-fives, as loud music thumped. Every minute or so, the music shut off and police and students stopped to talk — about childhood memories, what trends they like or do not like, or how power should be used. Another exercise had them debating whether respect was deserved or earned.
Throughout the night, police and teenagers enjoyed light moments, too, showing each other dance moves and snapping pictures.
“When you understand someone’s adversities, similarities, and differences,” McIntosh said in an interview, “you begin to understand them as a whole.”