“There was a lot of violence… It was like a war zone.” That’s how Eddie Barreto, a senior at Madison Park High School in Roxbury, describes growing up in the Franklin Field section of Dorchester. “There would be shooting one day, a fight another, a stabbing, a shoot-out, cops racing down the street,” detailed Eddie. “It was hectic.”
Franklin Field was one of the city’s most crime ridden neighborhoods in 2007. One of the programs credited with changing that is the Youth and Police Initiative, or YPI, which reduces friction between residents and police by bringing young people together for face-to-face meetings with cops in a new environment.
The youth discuss their personal lives with the police, and the police talk about themselves, specifically what they went through growing up and how they were able to deal with issues of poverty and school. “They’ve been through it, they were like us,” says Barreto.
Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross, the highest-ranking uniform officer of the Boston Police Department, can relate. Gross was raised just up the street from Franklin Field, “I can identify with those kids because I walked in the same shoes… I was one of those kids in a tough neighborhood,” he said. According to Gross, YPI provides a vital unbiased third party that brings youth and police together, making them realize that, contrary to popular belief, their shared stories and experiences are quite similar.
More than 200 youths and 150 police officers have completed YPI training through the years. In a small community of about 800 families, that makes YPI a high impact program. “There’s no one in Franklin Field who hasn’t heard of YPI or the culinary program,” says Barreto. News travels fast in Franklin Field, and the YPI program is no exception.
According to Barreto, the youth didn’t want to trust the police officers at first; they feared the police because they felt targeted. But with YPI, Barreto has seen countless kids transition from avoiding all contact with the police to going out of their way to say hello to each other. “I was one of those kids that when you see a cop you don’t say nothing and you walk out of the way, but now I see a police officer and I’m like ‘when can I meet the next one?’” says Barreto.
Matthew Swartz, Youth Link’s director of operations, has also witnessed this change in the community. “The kids walk down the street and they’ll just jump in the car with the cops now. If the police can drive down the street and not get shot at, to instead get a hug from one of the toughest inner-city kids, that’s a lot,” says Swartz.
Joe Robinson recruits teens to join the program. Robinson is often walking around Franklin Field, knocking on doors, and talking to kids on the streets inviting them in. “At first they’re hesitant. Once you say police, they’re always hesitant. But after their first day in the group its like they were waiting for me, they were there before I was. They were there every day.”
After the kids are recruited, a world of opportunity is open to them. Youth Link offers culinary classes taught by Swartz. “This was the worst city project you can imagine,” he said. Swartz teaches the kids how to make various dishes, and the students are paid as caterers at graduation ceremonies. “A lot of credit goes to Matthew Swartz for keeping the culinary program going,” says Dr. Yitzhak Bakal, president of NAFI.
Rather than limit the settings of interaction between youth and police to a courtroom or the back of a cruiser, this program offers a conduit through which the two groups can experience each other in a different way. “You really get to know the individuals, their thoughts, their goals, and aspirations,” said Chief Gross. Unfortunately, the program works off of private sectors and grants. There is no funding for prevention, despite the fact that incarceration costs ten times more than prevention, according to Swartz.
Finding common ground between two groups, stripping away all pre-conceived notions about each other, they become friends. “It became something more than just titles,” Barreto said. “Once you have communication, so many doors open up. It’s amazing and Franklin Field is a prime example.” Barreto’s claim is backed by undeniable statistics.
In March of 2011, three years of crime data from Franklin Field was collected by the Boston Police Department and the Boston Housing Authority (2007 through 2010) and showed a 43.5% decrease in violent crime with a particularly notable 31% decrease between 2009 and 2010 when Youth Link’s involvement intensified. There was also a 57% reduction in reported drug offenses in Franklin Field during this time span, among other encouraging statistics.
According to Gross, the establishment of YPI by North American Family Institute (NAFI) marked the beginning of a long and impactful process to keep kids away from gangs, guns, and violence. “This program has helped mend gaps in communication, helped people grow, and helped the city become a better place,” said Gross. Youth link, an innovative prevention initiative from NAFI, created programs such as YPI that are aimed toward building a lasting trust between youth and the authoritative adult community, and to reduce violence and gang involvement.
Twelve teens, many of whom are brothers and sisters of past YPI graduates, participated in their graduation ceremony on March 30 with Superintendent-in-Chief of Police William Gross, President of NAFI Dr. Yitzhak Bakal, Director of Youth Link Jay Paris, and other luminaries from the city. “We completed one of our most successful YPIs ever in Boston, according to the police and our own team,” said Paris.
Swartz and culinary arts students served a fabulous meal, according to Dr. Bakal. Many of the students spoke of the significant impact that the training made on their lives. A few students even expressed aspirations to one day join the police force as officers themselves. Dr. Bakal, moved by the experience said, “It’s wonderful. That’s a complete transformation from when young people were afraid of police, and completely suspicious of them, into wanting to be one of them.”