Metro Transit Police are building new relationships with on-street youth and helping them turn their lives around.
In a pilot study now underway, police officers engage directly with juveniles who are picked up for minor violations on the bus and rail system.
Initial results are promising. In fact, Metro Transit hopes to continue the program and might even expand it next year.
“Our goal was meeting these kids where they are and peeling back the layers to find out why they are getting in trouble, often more than one time,” said Brooke Blakey, a Metro Transit police officer working in the program.
“What we found was that with a little help and guidance, these kids can turn for the better and make better choices that may impact their whole lives. It feels good to make a real difference in their young lives.”
Keeping juveniles out of the court system
The Youth Diversion Program was created to help reduce the number of juveniles age 12-18 who are required to enter the court system for minor, nonviolent offenses like fare evasion, fighting and disorderly conduct.
After being screened, the offenders can voluntarily participate in the program that offers additional services like counseling, social services, educational support, family support and more.
A key partner in the 12-month program is Headway Mental Health Services of Minneapolis, which offers a full range of services for entire families. Another partner is the Saint Paul Community Ambassadors, a city-funded outreach unit dedicated to improving safety on city streets.
“A lot of these kids are looking for structure and support and stability but haven’t had that in the past, or not much of it,” Blakey said, recounting the kids’ struggles with school, truancy, jobs, learning disabilities and sometimes mental health issues.
Blakey, who has a background in social work and child psychology, spent 10 years with the Ramsey County Defenders Office and came to Metro Transit police in 2013.
Working with families to address larger problems
“One juvenile came in with her mother and they could barely exist in the same space for all the anger and family problems they brought with them,” she said. The two were eventually helped with anger management, family therapy, money management, a parenting class for the mother, and more. The juvenile completed the program and learned new life skills for the challenges ahead. “It was like night and day, and only a few months later,” Blakey said.
Two other juveniles came downtown to visit with Blakey on the night of their high school graduation ceremonies last June – replete in their caps and gowns.
“That was really something,” she said. “I was so impressed that they reached out to me in that way and on that night instead of being with other friends. It shows a lot of promise to me.”
Lessons learned are encouraging
Blakey and Program Supervisor Gwen DeGroff-Gunter reviewed 84 cases for the program, of which 38 were referred for the Juvenile Diversion Program. From January-September 2016, 10 juveniles successfully completed their program, 8 were unsuccessful, and 14 are ongoing. Six juveniles were contacted but did not engage in the program.
DeGroff-Gunter is a retired police officer with the City of Minneapolis who was hired in 2015 to develop the diversion program. She said transit staff learned a lot of lessons in the pilot program, including:
It is best to engage juveniles face-to-face, and often
Building trust takes time
Juveniles want stability and want to interact with officers
Officers also want to engage and interact with the juveniles
Follow up is essential for both officers and juveniles
Consistent staffing is essential to program success
“It has been an interesting and valuable program,” DeGroff-Gunter said. “The overall highlight, I think, was discovering the potential this program has to truly make a difference in a young person’s life.”
Looking ahead, she recommends that officers engage more directly with area schools and are empowered to mentor the juvenile participants more directly.
“We definitely made a difference, and I think if we had more resources we would have an opportunity to impact many more juveniles and more families,” she said. “This is a critical demographic for us in several ways, and we all want to increase safety for the riding public. There is a huge opportunity here.”
The pilot program was created with a one-time Equity Grant for $120,000 from the Metropolitan Council’s Office of Equal Opportunity to the Metro Transit Police Department. But only about $84,000 has been spent so far, leaving $36,000 for more work.