Teen painting depicts a partnership with the police

When 17-year-old Jima Chester visited the UMB Police Department (UMBPD) last summer to talk about the impact of trauma on young people, she had no idea at the time that she would end up presenting to agents a handcrafted gift that would be displayed in the department for years to come. Not only that, but it would also become a symbol of an emerging and promising relationship between the UMBPD and the youth of Baltimore.

From left to right: Joni Holifield, Tonya Black, Kyla Liggett-Creel, Jima Chester, Matthew Johnson and Chad Ellis.

On January 4, Chester introduced Lt. Matthew Johnson, who leads the UMBPD Outreach and Community Support Team (COAST), and Acting Deputy Chief Chad Ellis, with an acrylic painting of the department’s traditional crest, as a sign of appreciation for his willingness to meet the young people of the neighborhood. (Head of UMBPD Thomas Leone, MSL, could not attend.)

“I painted this for the Police Department out of appreciation for all of their sincere efforts and success in caring, liaising and teaching young people,” Chester explained. “They probably don’t even know it, but being around them and being able to see some of the things they do and experience has created transparency and vulnerability between me and the officers. The painting was a thank you for helping me understand their work and for them to understand me and treat me like family.

In July, Chester gave a PowerPoint presentation on Youth and Trauma as an Ambassador for the Healing Youth Alliance (HYA), a culturally relevant program focused on healing African American youth. HYA is a collaboration between the University of Maryland School of Social Work (UMSSW), the Office of Youth and Trauma Services of the Baltimore City Department of Health, and two Baltimore nonprofits : HeartSmiles, LLC and the Black Mental Health Alliance.

Spending time with officers that day, and on subsequent visits to the department, opened the eyes of the West Baltimore resident to a new way of thinking about law enforcement.

“We just had some really great conversations,” she said. “They showed us around, we were able to see the different parts of the department. Everyone was really nice. And we just kind of made a really good relationship and bond. It was a different take on the police for me, living in the city all my life. “

Johnson said fostering strong relationships with the city’s youth is a key goal of the UMPBD.

“The relationship between law enforcement and the citizens of Baltimore City can be controversial at times,” said Johnson, who grew up in Baltimore. COAST strives to build positive relationships with the surrounding communities of UMB.

The department is partnering with HeartSmiles to collaborate on programs that young people and UMBPD workers can plan together, Johnson said. HeartSmiles seeks to provide exceptional opportunities for enrichment and leadership development for youth in Baltimore’s most underserved communities.

“What we’re trying to do to be different, to be at the forefront of policing, is really dig deep into the community to make those connections from a young age,” he said.

When Kyla Liggett-Creel, PhD, LCSW-C, Associate Clinical Professor at UMSSW, introduced Johnson to HeartSmiles, he felt it was a great opportunity for young people to be invited to come to the UMBPD station to meet the agents one-on-one.

“It was a way for young people to find out more about the department, our mission, the equipment we use, what we do, the different procedures we have and how we differentiate ourselves from other police services” Johnson said. Not only would the young people get a glimpse of how the department works, but they would also be informed about job opportunities in the future, he added.

“It’s important that we work with the community because we are part of the community,” Johnson said.

Through her work with Baltimore Youth and HYA, Liggett-Creel suggested HeartSmiles President and Co-Founder Joni Holifield consider exploring a partnership between the nonprofit and UMBPD, which had already expressed interest in the idea.

“I work with a lot of young people in Baltimore City. And unfortunately, I hear a lot of stories about how they had some really negative, scary and traumatic interactions with the police in Baltimore, ”Liggett-Creel said. She had previously worked with Leone and Johnson on other projects including the UMSSW Internship Program with UMBPD. “I knew that it could be a healing relationship, and that my children that I work with could benefit from being able to talk about their experiences and have a positive experience with someone from law enforcement, and that the police could. benefit. to have heard the children talk about their experiences.

As keen as Liggett-Creel was to bring the two groups together, Holifield did not have it. She was skeptical of UMBPD’s commitment to serving the community. “They didn’t think we were actually doing the community things that we do. So I invited her to come over, ”Johnson said.

Johnson’s invitation to young Holifield and HeartSmiles to visit the station was initially greeted with trepidation. Hollifield readily admits that she was not a fan of the idea. Now, she describes the relationship UMBPD is building with HeartSmiles as an “incredible collaboration” that she never expected to see.

“I’m not even going to lie to you. I probably wouldn’t even be at this table if I hadn’t trusted Dr K (Liggett-Creel) because when Dr K first pitched this idea I was like, you know, no, no, it’s just a shame.

Some young people at HeartSmiles have recently been released from jail or juvenile detention, Holifield noted. “So this is a very, very, very sensitive situation. And we have young people who have been, in their own words, victimized by the police and law enforcement. But Dr K said ‘no, that will be different. These people are not like that. She said meet them first and we’ll go from there.

Liggett-Creel set up a video call to introduce Johnson and Holifield. Soon after, Holifield visited the department.

Less than 10 minutes after arriving, “I knew Dr K. was right,” Holifield said. “Just even in some of the languages ​​they used about how they treat the community. And we got to run over some of the officers and see them engaging with the community members around the corner, not knowing who I was, and just not how they spoke to them, but also showing them respect. I mean, it was just something we had never heard of.

Holifield was so impressed with UMBPD’s community outreach efforts that she shared her experience in a presentation she gave at the American Public Health Association conference in Denver to an audience of 10,000 attending. at the virtual summit and in person.

“I said, ‘Well, luckily for all of you, I just saw a model in my own town that works,’” she said. “I’m happy but at the same time I’m angry because it’s our best kept secret and nobody really takes this seriously and says okay, well, how do we make this evolve?” How do we take this model and do something that will benefit the whole city? And not just these few blocks?

With Holifield’s skepticism allayed, around 15 young HeartSmiles visited the station in November for a tour and to share a pizza with officers. They visited the call room where they took turns with MILO, a virtual training simulator used by officers to describe real life scenarios in which split-second decisions must be made.

“They really enjoyed it. Nobody wanted to leave at the end of the night, ”Johnson said.

Plans are underway to do another collaboration with HeartSmiles this spring, increasing the number of young participants. Johnson is also keen to bring in members from different units across the department to discuss career opportunities.

Johnson said he hopes the teens will let their peers know that the police are a person too.

“No, we don’t want our department to be a closed thing that the public can’t see. We are transparent. We want people to be here, ”he said.

Of the painting, Johnson said, “We had no idea she was going to do something like this. It’s touching and I feel like we are on the right track.

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