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CMPD Tries New Crime-Fighting Tactic: Life Skills Classes For Young Offenders

Exiting the police station on Wilkinson Blvd., Charlotte.
Nick de la Canal
/
WFAE-FM
Exiting the police station on Wilkinson Blvd., Charlotte.

CMPD is increasingly dedicating money and resources toward crime prevention efforts - that is, ways to stem violence before it happens, instead of merely reacting when it does. We take a look at one of the department's newest programs, called "Reach Out," which offers life skills and job training to young adults charged with first time felonies.

Brenden Brown, 18, is one of the program's current attendees. By day, he doesn't have the most glamorous job. He's one of the workers fixing pizzas and taking orders at a local pizza joint. It pays $8 an hour. But it's a significant step from his days as a young teen prone to fist-fighting. Back then, he was the kid who set off a school-wide bout.

"We ended up fighting right there in the classroom," he recalled, "And it ended up being a brawl, and it carried out to the courtyard, and then started a whole situation with 'west side' and 'south side.'"

What happened next? "Oh, I got kicked out of school," he said with a laugh.

Bright-eyed and with a good sense of humor, Brenden is an altogether amiable guy, but back then, he says, he was hanging with the wrong kind of people - the ones who got in trouble with the law. One day about a year ago, he and a friend were arrested for breaking and entering - a felony.

Enter now CMPD Officer Derrick Crawford and Sgt. Dave Scheppengrell, who not long after paid a visit to Brenden and his family at their home. The two officers are the founders of a new CMPD program called Reach Out. It's designed for young adults charged with first-time felonies.

The pair is constantly on the lookout for potential candidates for the program, either by getting tips from public defenders, or by sitting in court and listening to cases.

"At this moment, we're not taking violent offenders and drugs cases - at this moment - maybe in the future we may," said Crawford, "Right now, we're mainly focusing on embezzlement, LFAs [larceny from automobile cases], and B and Es [breaking and entering cases] from businesses."

The officers are highly selective about who gets in. And it has to be voluntary, and with the family's support. But the program boasts worthwhile incentives: not only do students get to use class time to fulfill community service requirements, but instructors also help them find jobs, and in some cases, are able to get their arrest records wiped clean.

Since the program was started last August, about 50 young adults have been enrolled, and most have since graduated high school, or are on track to graduate, and nearly all with jobs.

On a recent Saturday in the police station on Wilkinson Boulevard, about a half dozen young adults, a few with ankle monitors, are hunched or slumped in their seats, waiting for the instructors to begin.

Leading the morning's session is Arlene Manning, with the program Family First. She warms up the room by passing around a box of candy, and, gradually, the students begin to perk up as she gets them discussing ways to deal with anger.

"How do you accomplish - in a situation where you're angry and you decided that you want to not be angry - how do you accomplish that?" she asks, "What do you do?"

One suggests putting on your headphones, or finding someone else to hang out with. A young man near the front makes a crack about going to get McDonalds, and he means it as a joke, but Manning takes it seriously.

"Being hungry actually can change how you perceive a situation," she says.

The class feels free form, but it's a set curriculum. The instructor poses a question or a situation, and the students respond, and there's never any moment where the students are told what to do. Instead, the technique seems to be get them to realize it on their own.

The students are also trained in areas beyond anger management and life skills, says a 19-year-old named Rahsaan, who's been with the program nearly since the beginning.

"There's a lot of people that don't know - for example - how to fill out a job application," he said, "They teach you how to do that. There's a lot of people that don't know how to talk to somebody, or talk to law enforcement. They teach you to do that."

Brenden, the 18-year-old who works at the pizza place, says he's used what he's learned to check himself where he might once have started a fight.

"I really do think this program helped," he said. "It gave me a little bit more life skills - how to deal with people in different ways. Like, instead of getting mad and wanting to fight, it's better to voice your opinion, instead of sitting there, trying to resort to violence."

Brenden now has a job, a high school diploma, and hopes to one day join the military. And he has dreams for his future.

"To be honest, I have the standard American dream. I want my own house with a white picket fence, a little Tito dog. I don't want no kids, but if I get one it - it'll be okay. Have a wife. Have me a nice car. That's pretty much the dream," he said. "Have money saved up. Be able to retire when I'm about fifty, sixty years old. Stuff like that."

And now, nearly a year through the program, Brenden believes that goal is in reach.