In our series, A More Perfect Union, we showcase how what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us. In this edition, we take a look at how Boston cops and teens are finding common ground.
Despite having a history of racial tension, Boston has avoided crises like we’ve seen in other places, from Ferguson to Baltimore and Dallas.
When the Center for Teen Empowerment moved into the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston about seven years ago, gang and gun violence was widespread. Dorchester still struggles with crime, but youth there are now part of the solution, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller.
Dante Omorogbe said he’s been stopped by police hundreds of times but has never been arrested. He’s a youth leader for the nonprofit Teen Empowerment that brings together teens and police in Boston to talk.
They engage in some pretty non-traditional ways, and it’s disarming for both sides.
“Really, having them stand in each other’s shoes. … And they see someone who may be exactly like them who faces the exact same challenges,” said Stanley Pollack, who founded the program in 1992 when violent crime was rampant in Boston.
It gathered gang members, sworn enemies and brokered a peace deal. In the mid-‘90s for 29 months, not a single person under the age of 21 was killed on the streets.
“One of the things that took place was that there was belief in young people and there was an investment in young people as leaders… And paid them for their work to make their community peaceful,” Pollack said.
From 2015 to 2016, in the parts of the city where the program operates, homicides have remained flat. But, throughout Boston, homicides went up 36 percent.
Pollack sees these teens as the agents of change.
“It begins not because they have a problem but because they have something to offer,” Pollack said.
They’re paid to organize events and recruit new members including police officers like Zach Crossen. He met Omorogbe in the park this summer. It was a case of mistaken identity.
“In my mind I’m thinking, we’re in a neighborhood where there’s been some recent shooting activity,” Crossen recalled.
“Were you worried about stereotyping this young man?” Miller asked.
“No, I get it. I’m not naïve to understand. I know I’m a white police officer in a predominately minority neighborhood and that’s a huge thing to overcome,” Crossen said.
But they did and from the other side of the fence, Omorogbe handed Officer Crossen a flyer.
“Do you normally just whip out Teen Empowerment flyers when you see police officers?” Miller asked.
“I do now,” Omorogbe said, smiling.
There was a time when things might have gone very differently for Omorogbe.
“You had dropped out of school, you were homeless, you were considering selling drugs… What stopped you?” Miller asked.
“There’s no love on these streets. You know there are only two ways. It’s either die or go to jail,” Omorogbe said.
“There is a third choice you made,” Miller said.
“To change,” Omorogbe said.
“It’s been a tough life for you,” Miller said.
“Mhmm, real tough,” Omorogbe said, wiping away a tear.
Omorogbe is now back at school working to graduate this spring.
But, he and Officer Crossen are not naïve. The faces of dead, un-armed black males killed by police and men in blue killed on the job run through their minds every day.
“I want to go home to my family just as much as anybody else wants to go home to theirs,” Crossen said.
Still what’s happening here is what they believe has freed Boston from the fate of so many other cities.
“Like how me and Zach are, how I can sit down and have a conversation with an officer you know…if there happens to be a time where I have to be stopped, you know there’s not going to be that hostility, because you know, okay, that’s Dante, we’re on common ground,” Omorogbe said.
Omorogbe is technically homeless. He is staying with friends and, with the help of Teen Empowerment, he hopes to be independent soon. He also dreams of becoming a social worker someday.