In East Baltimore, a safe haven

Police mentoring program provides a lifeline to youth in need

May 21, 2012|By Quinise Green

I am a Baltimore police officer in what is often termed the "hood" in the Eastern District. It is an impoverished, predominantly African-American neighborhood where children often don't have enough to eat or live in apartments where the lights have been turned off. Some are homeless.

In communities like ours, tension and distrust often characterize the relationship between law enforcement and residents. It is an unfortunate reality that can contribute to higher crime, unaccountable officers and witnesses afraid to come forward. The result is the shattering of too many young lives, both as the victims and perpetrators of crime.

We have found another way. We see ourselves not just as enforcers of the law but also as problem solvers and supporters of the people in our "hood."Our district commander demands that we be an integral part of the community. We go on walks with stakeholders in the neighborhoods to identify problems and find ways to fix them. If we see kids playing where they aren't supposed to, we don't just yell at them to move; we find another place they can play.

One such place is the Eisenhower Foundation Oliver Center, which is funded through the Department of Justice and home to the Youth Safe Haven program. I serve as a mentor to high-risk kids from the Barclay neighborhood at the center. Their lives are littered with challenges most Americans don't have to face: hunger, homelessness, parents with serious substance abuse problems and wrenching poverty. Some days, the snack and lunch at the youth safe haven is their only meal. It is a tough life for our 6-to-11-year-olds. For many of these children, the program has been their lifeline for survival .

One young girl I have become particularly fond of is being raised by a single parent living in a hotel for the homeless. When she came to the program, she had a tough veneer to cover her pain. She didn't pay attention to others' feelings. You could see the hard edges forming that would likely lead to a pathway of trouble.

The transformation of this 9-year-old gives me hope. I now see her showing compassion toward others. When we went on our "shop with a cop" sojourn — which we do because so many parents can't afford Christmas toys for their kids — she didn't just buy things for herself, she bought a present for her mom and supplies to make a doll for me. The joy she felt giving me the doll was palpable. She felt someone was caring about her, and it was a feeling she felt compelled to return.

Many of the kids bring hostility and aggression with them. Through role play and other techniques, the Youth Safe Haven teaches them how to resolve problems peacefully.

Research shows that this model results in higher grades, lower teen pregnancy and less involvement in the juvenile justice system. It creates trust for the police and makes law enforcement easier in the long run. Coupled with a neighboring program also backed by Eisenhower Foundation called Quantum, it can give high-risk children a pathway out of despair and crime and open a door to college or career. Quantum picks up where Safe Havens leave off, working with high school kids through consistent mentoring, tutoring, computer support and a small stipend.

Most of my career, I was working narcotics. I was a no-nonsense police officer, and I cracked down hard. The experience of being a mentor has lent me more insight into these children who saw no opportunity, felt trapped and fell into lives of petty drug dealing. Now, instead of just judging them because of their bad choices, I take the time to figure out why they are in trouble and what steps can be taken to give them a different future.

In Baltimore, we are exploring comprehensive solutions to multiple programs. The Youth Safe Haven ensures that, at least in one community, elementary children have a safe place to go, removing them from the destructive forces that await them in the streets. Quantum takes them through high school, and the community policing we practice creates safer communities.

Unfortunately, there are not enough of these programs in Baltimore and most American cities. Too many kids fall through the cracks. But there is hope in the reality that through partnerships among the city, the police, educators and the community, we have found some real solutions.

Quinise Green is a Baltimore police officer. Her email is quinise.green@baltimorepolice.org.

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