Baltimore Police Build Community with Art Project
Baltimore Police have found a new way to engage with their community. As part of the Choice Program at University of Maryland, officers worked with young people in the justice system to create a mosaic. The art project is 5-feet in diameter and contains thousands of pieces placed by hand with help from officers, Americorps students, teens, and artists.
Bits of glass, metal and tiles were arranged into symbolic shapes like police badges, peace signs, flags, hearts and clasped hands. The result was a work art they named “Uprising to Artrising.” The final project was installed in the lobby of the Baltimore Police Station.
Community engagement and reconciliation was important to Baltimore Police after the highly controversial and visible death of Freddie Gray, a black man killed while in the custody of Baltimore Police. A federal investigation sparked by that incident resulted in many recommendations for reform in Baltimore — including a push towards community engagement to bridge distrust between police and citizens.
When the mosaic project started in 2015, it was named the “Peace Circle” but the Freddie Gray incident still overshadowed the participants’ intentions. Students met the idea and the name with some suspicion. Shanaya, an 11th-grader, said seeing the officers at the “Peace Circle” only made her think of friends and relatives who had been harassed or detained by police. “And then there are some bad cops who beat people on the street, or even kill people, without good cause,” said Dodd. But by the end of the week, she said: “This project changed me. It took a while, but we kind of saw how the officers were really cool once you got to know them. You know, what surprised me the most about the police? It was just how nice they were once you got to know them.”
Giving the timing of the project’s launch, it took some time to gain momentum and reach completion. Organizers were sensitive, too, to making sure that the community would accepting of the project and its display after the Freddie Gray case. After two years of working together and waiting for the right moment, the mosaic was finally installed.
The experience was transformative for the cops who helped, too. “It helped show me these are still kids,” Officer Lawrence LaPrade said. “There are still kids inside them who need to see that we’re there to help them….We opened up to them, and they opened up to us.” LaPrade was able to share his own background with the kids, since he had grown up in the same neighborhood with the same challenges. “It’s good for them seeing us doing something other than arresting someone,” LaPrade said. “That’s when they see us most of the time.”
Baltimore’s efforts to train officers to communicate, collaborate and engage with citizens is clearly paying off. Shifting the attitudes of younger citizens is an important part of changing the history of conflict in challenged neighborhoods. The Department’s investment in training their officers to work with young people will continue to create positive change – as well as beautiful art.