Turning kids around

City police guide young offenders to the positive

March 23, 2006|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES | GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN REPORTER

The hip-hop vibe filled the cramped amateur sound studio in the basement of a youth center in West Baltimore. As a teenage boy rapped into a microphone about street life, a sound engineer in the booth next door manipulated the prerecorded beats.

"Gimme something positive!" said the 28-year-old engineer, Joshua Wilson, as police, probation officers and teenagers moved their feet or nodded their heads to the beat.

"I ain't never write something positive!" the boy yelled back, laughing.

It's a moment in the life of a new initiative called the Juvenile Intervention Program, led by the Baltimore Police Department. Begun in February, the pilot program focuses on boys living in neighborhoods in the city's Western District. With guidance from the state Department of Juvenile Services, police officials enrolled about 20 young offenders accused of mostly minor offenses.

The teenagers were required to attend weekly Monday night sessions, but organizers recognized that even that was a challenge. To help with attendance, police commanders sent Police Athletic League vans to pick the boys up.

Police say the program is different from past efforts because of the broad exposure to different issues it gives the boys - and because some of the department's officers were interacting with the offenders in nonconfrontational settings.

"The community wants this," said Jim Green, the Police Department's special-projects director. "The community doesn't want to distance themselves from these kids. We're trying to reach high-risk youths in a different way, by bringing them together in positive ways to do positive things."

For one of the early sessions, the boys and the officers engaged in "trust-building" and teamwork exercises, such as catching one another as they fell backward.

Another time, they toured Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where many of the city's gunshot victims are treated. In another session, the boys talked with relatives of victims of violence.

This month, police and probation officers, along with representatives from other agencies, piled into Police Athletic League vans with the boys to take a field trip to see the film Boys of Baraka at the Charles Theatre. The documentary follows a group of troubled but promising Baltimore teenagers who spend time at a school in Kenya.

After seeing the film, a tall, lanky and soft-spoken 17-year-old said he thought it portrayed an accurate view of life on the streets for many teenagers. About the program, the boy - a high school junior - said: "I think it's good. It's keeping me off the streets, keeping me occupied."

The boy, who had previously been arrested for stealing cars, said that he thought that "some cops" he'd seen on the streets were "jerks." But he said the ones affiliated with program seemed different. "I respect them a little because they don't have to be here," he said.

The young offenders were ordered to participate in the program as part of probation. The Sun does not identify juveniles charged or convicted of crimes.

Five police officers - some of whom had arrested these teenagers - acted as mentors. Lt. Col. John P. Skinner, who commanded the Western District until a recent promotion, and Maj. Garnell Green, the current district commander, started the program as a follow-up to an initiative they led last summer called Operation Safe Zone. That program focused on using uniformed officers in that district's most-troubled neighborhoods, which allowed other city agencies to move in.

"These kids are coming from some of the most distressed neighborhoods in the city, and they're dealing with enormous issues," Skinner said.

The program ended last week with a small graduation party, during which Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm handed out framed certificates at the Youth Opportunity Community Center in West Baltimore.

Of the program's 20 initial participants, 13 attended each of the seven sessions and graduated from the program - better than the minimum of 10 graduates that police had hoped to have. The department spent about $2,000 on the program - all from a discretionary account not funded by taxpayer dollars.

After the ceremony, the boys received guidance on how to apply for summer jobs. And for an entertainment break, many stepped into the center's sound booth for a chance to perform and record rap songs, with some reciting their own lyrics.

Wilson, the sound engineer, tried to coax the inner rapper out of each of the boys. Some of them sang about violence on the streets, or relationships with girls. A few even peppered their raps with offensive remarks.

And Wilson kept saying: "Keep it clean! Keep it clean!"

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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