Safe havens for young people, cultural diversity training for law enforcement officers and accountability at all levels of criminal justice and social service infrastructure were the recurring themes as youth leaders, community organizers and Baltimore City police officers met on April 15 at the Academy of Success in West Baltimore for the First Annual Youth Summit.
The inaugural summit is a part of an initiative headed by Baltimore Police Lt. Col. Melvin Russell to bring together different parts of the community to uncover what ails Baltimore. After being appointed by Commissioner Anthony Batts to lead the department’s new Community Partnership Division, Russell has met with faith-based organizations, non-profits, community leaders and now youngsters to create strategies to reduce crime in the city.
“I’m tired of taking time and building programs that no one is using because no one has talked to you,” said Russell to the crowd of more than 100 youth at the event. “This is about building new opportunities rather than building more jails. Youths are a gift to this city.”
Russell posed a series of questions for the youth to consider before they broke out into smaller sections by district. Do you need safe havens? Alternative measures to jails? Are we destroying you by locking you in jails and throwing away the key? Is there a solution to dirt bike riding?
Russell said the plan is about building a community in Baltimore which encompasses faith-based organizations, community policing, re-entry programs and youths. He said he is pushing for open dialogue and real talk for the event, and also real solutions.
The attendees broke out into sections based on police districts to discuss the three most problematic areas facing youth and police community interactions. Then they came up with solutions to those problems.
Officer Fred Allen, who worked in the Eastern district, said the separation of the groups by police district for the discussion allowed the groups to talk about specific issues plaguing their smaller communities. “Every district brings its own flavor and things to get involved in.”
After the sessions, the groups met back in the main conference area to discuss issues impacting youth. Safe havens such as PAL Centers and recreation centers were a common theme amongst groups as a way to increase police and community interactions. Some suggested cultural diversity for officers stating there is often a barrier and distrust between youth and police causing a rift in policing.
During the presentations, young adults from Mountain Manor Treatment Center, an innovative youth opioid center treatment program, gave suggestions based on their own experiences as young substance abusers. Representing Southern and Southwest Baltimore, the young men said addiction is a disease and they hope law enforcement officials can see it as that and help to treat them instead of locking them up. They said they have never gotten treatment in a juvenile treatment center.
“The turning point for me came when Lt. Col. Russell told all the old heads to move out and the youth felt like we were on the inside of this dialogue,” said LaKeisha Johnson, 7th district commissioner of the Baltimore City Youth Commission. “We got the chance to connect with other youth groups that are doing the same thing and come together to work for the common good. We can overcome and over power Baltimore.”
Shaleece Williams, a youth community organizer in the Druid Heights community, said the summit helped to bridge the gap between different youth groups around the city. She said she plans on using the connections she made during the summit to further network with other youth around Baltimore.
One criticism of youth during the summit was adult organizers overpowering youth voices and disregarding comments or suggestions in some of the breakout sessions.
“I think sometimes it’s just telling the adults ‘this is why we’re here’ to make a solution it’s not for you to diagnose us with problems or tell us what you want to see us do,” said Johnson who sat in the northeast and eastern breakout session. “It’s what we want to do. It’s how we think we can handle this problem. It’s how we can push forth the vision we have as leaders of tomorrow.”
“All together it was good we were able to get some like-minded people, youth from different walks of lives to come in a basically share ideas on making our city better,” said Kayana Johnson, commissioner at-large for the Baltimore City Youth Commission.
Russell said for the next session, he will ensure the summit is only youth based allowing students to speak more freely. Debra Furr-Holden, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health working with substance abuse prevention, said she will ensure that facilitators are properly trained to handle the sensitive nature of the discussion at the next summit.