The Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train rolled out of Baltimore’s Penn Station at 8:10 am last Friday, September 18th. Inner Harbor Project Youth Leader Tiana Samuels was on board, dressed professionally and looking over her notes as the train made its way to Washington, D.C. She had been invited to speak at Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s forum at the 2015 Congressional Black Caucus Convention at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Tiana practiced her introduction on the train while IHP Executive Director Celia Neustadt listened and offered advice on public speaking and nerve-calming techniques. By the time the train hit D.C., Tiana had nailed her introduction and her confidence was growing.
The panel on which Tiana was speaking -- the second of the day in the Criminal Justice Legal Issues Forum -- was called Strengthening Relationships & Bridging Gaps Between Law Enforcement and Minority Communities, and is a topic of conversation IHP youth leaders advocate for on a daily basis. The first panel consisted of many notable guests including William Murphy, the attorney for Freddie Gray’s family, as well as Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, and Keith Alexander, Crime Reporter for The Washington Post. The panel focused mostly on exposing wrong-doings within the criminal justice system through recounting personal experiences, most notably Reed-Veal’s emotional account of her daughter’s recent death in a Texas jail cell.
When the first panel wrapped up, the Congresswoman encouraged the room to stick around for the second panel, which consisted of Baltimore School Police Deputy Chief Major Hamm, Sergeant Anthony Turner of the Houston Police Department, Stephanie Mosquera, teen member of the Teen and Police Services (TAPS) Academy, Leslie Wright of the Baltimore City Teen Court, University of Virginia student Martese Johnson, Jason D. Williamson of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project, Brittany Packnett, the Executive Director of Teach for America in St. Louis, and IHP’s own Youth Leader Tiana Samuels.
The second panel started off with a strong appeal from Major Hamm, who experienced police violence first-hand at the age of 15 in Baltimore before becoming a law enforcement official for the city. His testimony to the work being done to close the gap between police and teens within Baltimore City Schools was a natural segue into Sergeant Turner’s introduction of the TAPS Academy.
“Police officers stereotype youth, and youth stereotype police officers,” Turner said. “This program allows us to even the playing field, to interact with these police officers with effective communication so you can help to not only prevent officers from hurting youth, but also youth from hurting officers, and youth from hurting other youth.”
Serving as proof of the work being done was panelist Stephanie Mosquera, a 17-year-old who was sent to an alternative high school in Houston after a dispute with the Houston PD.
“I used to hate police, but now I see TAPS is fulfilling its goal – I have a good relationship with officers now. I can approach officers with respect, and I get respect back. It basically just came down to communication, and I understand it now.”
The TAPS conversation was a seamless lead-in for IHP’s Tiana Samuels, who scrapped the introduction she had rehearsed for an hour on the train and instead spoke from her heart about the essential work being done by IHP youth leaders. After explaining that The Inner Harbor Project is a research-based model for social change where teens come up with solutions to fix the tensions in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Tiana spoke specifically about the Youth Engagement Training she conducts with officers.
“I work with the Youth Engagement Training team, which is a program that teaches officers communication, empathy, and respect. And one thing that’s important about that is that your first impression is always remembered, and instead of coming across as saying ‘shut up and sit down’ or anything like that, you always want to come off as appropriate to get the right reaction from someone else.”
Tiana spoke about how the team conducted extensive research, analyzed it, and concluded that officers were one of the main sources of tension that made teens feel excluded and not accepted in the Inner Harbor, and this research spurred the conception of the Youth Engagement Training program which piloted in November 2014.
“We were kind of skeptical about how police officers would feel about us training them, but we’ve trained over 100 officers and 98% percent of them said it would influence how they approach teens going forward.” In conclusion, Tiana added, “One thing I want to say is that there was an officer from the Inner Harbor Unit, and after we trained him he got very emotional and he explained that it’s been over 40 years that he’s been a police officer and he had never before had a positive interaction with youth. He also explained how happy he was for our program, and it kind of made me feel like I was doing a really good job. Where I come from it’s not really a positive environment, and to be around that and to be around positive people and spread positivity towards police officers and see that police officers are actually human, just as we are, because I feel that some people look at a person in the uniform without seeing them as a mother, a father, or anything else.”
Ending her address by emphasizing that if you consider how your words and actions will affect someone, whether it’s an officer, a tourist, a peer, or a stranger, Tiana expressed her belief that empathy and respect are at the core of creating and spreading positivity -- the first step in solving the issues discussed by the Criminal Justice Legal Issues Forum.
The forum – specifically the second panel – consisted of activists who work everyday to create programs and lay the groundwork that will assist in resolving many of the societal issues we face, and have been facing at an alarming rate recently, by educating United States citizens from all cities and backgrounds on the importance of inclusivity and communicating with one another in an effective way. The Inner Harbor Project utilized the opportunity to inform the public – not only attendees of the conference, but also the audience tuning into C-SPAN – on how it’s working to foster harmonious coexistence in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.