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Step Into My Shoes: What Police Learn from Incarcerated Youth

group standing around posters
Richmond police recruits attend a training at Art 180, which included viewing and discussing work made by youth incarcerated at the Juvenile Detention Center. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

One of the first stops for the current class of Richmond police recruits was at the non-profit organization Art 180. The collaboration is part a growing movement to change the juvenile justice system. In the first of a two-part series, Catherine Komp reports for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Next week, listen for part two of this story when we hear from Police Chief Alfred Durham about this unique collaboration and learn about new programs to address the "school to prison pipeline." Follow the 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.


Trey Hartt: Hi, how you doing? Trey Hartt...

Art 180’s Trey Hartt and Taekia Glass welcome 21 police recruits who’ve just arrived for a three hour training.

Taekia Glass: Good morning everybody, I’m the program director here at Art 180 and you’re probably wondering why you’re here this morning...

The recruits are here to learn about the impact of the juvenile justice system on individuals, families and the larger community. They begin by exploring an exhibit made by teens incarcerated at the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center. For eight weeks, the youth got to leave the facility and work with artists, educators and legal advocates at Art 180’s youth center.

Hartt: Right now we want to spend the next hour, just looking at the gallery…

A group of recruits gathers in the center of the room, where there’s a replica of a cell. It’s six feet wide, eight feet long and eight feet tall. They look at the floor’s planks, where youth wood-burned messages to people on the outside. “Step into my shoes,” they wrote, “feel my pain and struggle.” “Imagine you can see barbed wire from your window, imagine you can hear kids crying, screaming.” “Know that I wish I was home, know that I’m scared.”

Dominique Compton: For me, that was the one that got to me the most.
Oscar Reyes: Every time I would read a different statement, I felt like I would hear an individual just crying out.

Twenty-three year olds Dominique Compton and Oscar Reyes are two of the new recruits.

Compton: Just knowing, being in health care and having my undergraduate degree, I understand that human beings can not function in such a small place, you would run the sanest person insane.

Reyes: Just looking inside of the cell, I kind of imagined myself there and I felt a little negative energy, but at end of day I realized, I got to go home and they do get that option, they have to stay there for whatever amount of time they’re there for.

This exhibit and the recruit training emerged from the wide-ranging project Performing Statistics, which uses art and advocacy to raise awareness about mass incarceration and the “school to prison pipeline.”

Mark Strandquist: The core ethos of the project is that the individuals most affected by the system are the experts that we believe society needs to listen to, in this case incarcerated youth themselves.

Mark Strandquist launched Performing Statistics in June 2015 along with partners Art 180 and Legal Aid Justice Center.

Strandquist: If Virginia is referring more youth to law enforcement than any state in the country, we believe that the incarcerated youth that we worked with have a lot to teach those polices officers.

One way the youth are helping to teach officers is through a series of training manuals.

Strandquist: So the whole concept of the training stem from a publication put out by the Richmond Police Department called “If You’re Stopped by the Police.” We felt like the youth’s voice was not present in that publication so we wanted to create our own manual where teens were helping to train police on their terms and offering their perspectives and desires.

Glass: If you stop a teen, take a breath and...

Art 180’s Taekia Glass reads some of their suggestions:

Glass: … remember what it’s like to be a teenager, just talk to us, get to know us. Think before you react. Make us laugh sometimes. Ask us what we’re going through. Listen.

Another manual looks at what officers should do before working with youth. Performing Statistics partner Jeree Thomas from Legal Aid Justice Center shares some of those ideas.

Jeree Thomas: Walk around without your uniform. Move your family into the projects for two months without a gun. Grow up with gunshots on your block. Pass a test on how to work with kids. Try surviving on food stamps. Grow up watching your family struggle to survive. Have teens train you.

Compton: Those manuals, it really gave me a great perspective on how we’re viewed, and just simple things that we want. We can’t ask the community to look at us and trust us without them looking at us and saying we have a bit of demands as well.

Reyes: It opened up my eyes to know where I have to focus to make sure they feel better about approaching a police officer and, I’ll give them a positive impact because once you make a positive impact with one teen, I’m pretty sure they’ll probably go share that with their friends and be like, that guy’s not bad, I had a great experience with him. You’ll change one person at a time. I can’t change the world but I can definitely try to change one person at a time and it goes a long way.

During the training, recruits heard from a mother about the impact of youth incarceration on families; they learned about trends with the “school to prison pipeline” including that Virginia leads the country in youth referrals to law enforcement and that Richmond has some of the highest numbers of school suspensions. They discussed youth poverty and trauma, and how officers can serve as guardians and mentors. 

Jason Smith: The biggest thing I learned is that my role as a police officer can extend beyond locking somebody up.

Recruit Jason Smith’s first career was as a child and family case manager. After nearly 10 years in that field, he wanted a new challenge while also continuing to serve the community.

Smith: We have to hold people accountable for what they do, but if we can get in before it gets to that point and if we can provide opportunities within the community whether it’s teaching people vocational skills, helping them with education or just giving them the opportunity to advance from where they are in their current standing, I think it is important. As law enforcement officers, we have the opportunity, we have the resources, we may not have the money at times,  but I think we can do a lot more with our time.

Smith along with fellow recruits Compton and Reyes say the training left a lasting impression, giving them with a better understanding of how to build bridges with the community. Organizers like Mark Strandquist hope this training model expands and say it could be replicated in other cities.

Strandquist: Our dream is that not only could what we did be a training module or experience for police officers across Richmond but also across the state, but also this is a concept that could happen anywhere. It could also be focused in different ways: how would LGBTQ youth train police?  How would youth of different faiths train police? So we’re really excited about this model of connecting the youth most affected by a given issue to the people who can directly impact their lives.

Next week, listen for part two of this story. We’ll hear from Chief Alfred Durham about this unique collaboration and how programs will expand following Art 180’s Robins Foundation grant. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.