Richmond VA > Police > Step Into My Shoes: What Police Learn from Incarcerated Youth

Last Updated: 2010-01-20

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Community Unites to Address School to Prison Pipeline

Richmond’s police chief shares a vision with local artists and legal advocates. Together, they’re working to reverse high rates of student arrests and provide more opportunities for young people. Virginia Currents producer Catherine Komp has more in the second of our two part series.

Learn More: Listen to Part 1 of our series which takes you to a police recruit training at Art 180. Follow the ongoing work of Art 180 and Legal Aid Justice Center, including LAJC's recommendations for school policing reform. Read the Center for Public Integrity's investigation into Virginia's record of referring youth to law enforcement. And watch Performing Statistics covered on Virginia Currents (TV).


When Alfred Durham learned that Virginia led the country in referring young people to law enforcement, he was troubled.

Alfred Durham: The red flag went up for me and I was saying, how many have we locked up? And when we pulled the statistics, they were alarming to me, 149 kids, but what was most telling to me was 59 of those kids were locked up for disorderly.

Richmond’s Police Chief looked deeper and found some of those disorderly charges were for things like profanity and being disruptive in class.

Durham: Come on, we can’t be doing that.

While the police chief and his staff were meeting about these issues, so was a group of artists, educators and advocates getting ready to launch an initiative called Performing Statistics.

Mark Strandquist: Performing Statistics is an ongoing project that connects incarcerated youth with leading policy and creative experts around Richmond.

Mark Strandquist is director of the project.

Strandquist: It starts from the question, how would criminal justice reform differ if it was led by incarcerated youth? And how can a variety of community experts support those youth and their vision to not only talk about and visualize a more just world but actually realize it.

As the project was getting ready to launch a week of events, a spontaneous exchange unfolded in downtown RIchmond.

Taekia Glass: It was the weekend of the Baltimore riots and the May Day parade...

Taekia Glass is program director at Art 180, a long-serving youth organization and partner with Performing Statistics. She says it was First Friday and Art 180 teens were getting ready to host an exhibit, when they noticed several officers across the street.

Glass: So it kind of took us all off guard a little bit, because we never see that presence down here.

They discussed what to do and the teens decided to approach the officers and invite them to see the exhibit.

Glass: Probably three came in first and then more followed after that, and they came in and spoke with the teens, looked the art and really engaged. Major Mike Shamus was one of those and he was really impressed with the work and the kids and the fact that they came out and spoke to them and invited them into the space.

That simple act of engagement, sparked by Richmond teens, trickled up to Chief Durham

Durham: I got a call from one of my majors and he says, Chief, we know your focus is on youth engagement, I think you need to come see this. Probably about a week later, I go and visit the studio and I thought it was just awesome, having communication with them and they’re telling me what they were doing with the youth in the community. And just to see the artwork and the talent of the young people we have here in the City of RIchmond. I wouldn’t say I was surprised, I was just excited and impressed with what I saw.

The Chief accepted an invitation to participate in a Performing Statistics youth forum, bringing a group of his officers to join the discussion. And he came back to Art 180 to see an exhibit created by youth in juvenile detention. There, he saw portraits the teens made paired with audio recordings about their hopes and fears:

(Montage of teen recordings)
If you were me, you would know, I love my mom and we have a great relationship...
You would know that I am a good basketball player...
If were me, you would also know, that I love being myself and coming up with ways to better myself...
You would know that I use my struggle for my motivation…
That I have trust issues, that I need a father in my life…
You would know that I’m scared of losing my mom and my family…
That I need more opportunities in my community...
That I want to become a computer artist…
And that I want to be a CEO...
That I want to move my momma out of the projects...
That I need for people to start believing in me...
That I’m an ordinary kid that wants to be somebody...
That I have a voice that needs to be heard like everybody else does...
And you would know that, I want to be a successful and better person.

Durham: One thing I have learned in the later years of my career in law enforcement is we have to listen to the young people and they have story to tell and they can educate us.

After Chief Durham saw the exhibit, he sent the new class of recruits to Art 180 for a three hour training. He was also inspired to create a new diversion program called LIFE:

Durham: And that’s Law Enforcement Intervention Focusing on Education.

For 13 misdemeanor offenses, including trespass, disorderly and minor property damage, youth can be referred to a nine week program rather than being arrested. LIFE launched January 20th at Richmond’s Armstrong High School. Another session begins this Spring at George Wythe.

Durham: Our officers have been trained already about the program, we have lesson plans, our officers who are doing the instruction as well folks we bring in from the outside.

Parental or guardian involvement will be key says Chief Durham, as well as creating ongoing opportunities for youth who complete the LIFE program or juvenile detention.

Durham: I think sometimes that’s the missing link and having a parent and child sit down with an authority and let’s have discussions: what are the problems at home? Even though our nine week program is focusing on the kid, how do we measure the success of the child? ...We want to have those wrap-around services, are there issues in home? There may be other issues with siblings, we can bring the appropriate resources in the help them. But  most importantly, I want to follow each child who participates in our program, I want to follow them through the rest of their career in High School. And assign them a mentor, if they want a mentor.

Richmond’s Police Chief knows that disrupting the “school to prison pipeline” is a group effort involving law enforcement, schools, parents and policy makers. And he recognized the impact of Art 180 and the Performing Statistics project. So at the end of 2015, he joined them, twice, to present their work to the Robins Foundation.

Durham: I got a text that said three words: “we got it.” So I was excited for them, especially to be part of it and help them achieve their goal of obtaining that grant.

Trey Hartt: It was a game changer, absolutely.

Art 180’s Trey Hartt and Legal Aid Justice Center’s Jeree Thomas say the Chief’s endorsement helped them win the $500,000 Community Innovation Grant. 

Jeree Thomas: It makes me hopeful for the young people that we work with that the police chief is really interested in making some changes because at the end of the day, that’s what matters. It matters that we have less kids being caught up in system and that we have more kids being mentored and supported by a number of different individuals and organizations in the community, including the police.

Thomas and Hartt say with three more years to continue this work, the possibilities are limitless.

Hartt: The new program which is called Self-Advocacy Through Art is going to expand on what Performing Statistics already started, so we’ll do year round work with incarcerated youth and they’ll be able to talk about their experiences and changes they wish to see in system and then connect that work to Legal Aid Justice Center who will be helping to organize young people and empower their own leadership skills and advocacy skills to influence the change that they wish to see in their communities.

Art 180 will also develop a fellowship for teens who’ve come out of detention. Legal Aid Justice Center will spearhead a youth advocacy network, which will include young people who’ve experienced the criminal justice system.

Thomas: They’re going to come together and work towards identifying policies, practices and things that impact their daily lives and then talk through how can we go about effecting change.

Advocates say changes to the law are necessary to dismantle the school to prison pipeline. In a recent report on school policing statewide, Legal Aid Justice Center calls for agreements between school divisions and law enforcement agencies. They also want to see Virginia code amended to clarify the roles of School Resource Officers or SROs and ensure school staff are responsible for enforcing school rules. The group is also pushing for mandatory, comprehensive training for all SROs and more resources for schools to “productively [intervene] when misbehavior occurs.” In Richmond, Chief Durham says they are seeing some progress. Between September and December 2015, the number of students arrested in school was 34, compared to 48 during the same period in 2014.

Durham: We can’t lock our way out of this situation, when you talk about crime, violence, there are a lot of underlying issue, when you talk about poverty, not having the ability to have the resources a  normal person would. So how do we reach out to these people and again it’s about building relationships.

Thomas: Police are very key to it, so it’s great that he is being proactive and is really excited about making changes.

Chief Durham plans to continue the partnership with Art 180 and Performing Statistics, developing a cultural awareness and diversity program and strengthening the relationship that started on May Day when a group of Richmond teens walked over to his officers and said hello.

For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.

Step Into My Shoes
Community Unites to Address School to Prison Pipeline Community Unites to Address School to Prison Pipeline
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