Elgin ready to take new, non-police approach with troubled youth
Elgin's new Youth Empowerment program will put the theory that it takes a village to raise a child to work by enlisting local mentors and community organizations to work. Their task will be steering local youth, who would otherwise find themselves in contact with the police, into better choices and social services that will help address underlying problems.
Police Chief Ana Lalley announced the details of the program to city council members this week.
The city is seeking more people and organizations to get involved. Until then, the early roster of helping organizations features a bevy of religious organizations. That may be appropriate as Lalley and the creators of the program are asking the community to have a little faith in a new approach that tries to limit police contact with local youth.
"Policing in America right now, we are at a crossroads," said council member Corey Dixon, who is one of the creators of the new empowerment program. "We've had decades of institutional racism. Black and brown people are being thrown in jail, and people who don't look like them are being slapped on the hand for the same offenses. We can continue to talk about this stuff, or we can do something."
Dixon was inspired to do something after seeing the stats from the police department's Operation Homefront program. That program involved police making visits to the homes of youth who found themselves in trouble. But the numbers showed Black and Hispanic youth getting arrested in numbers greater than would be expected or that Dixon and several fellow city council members felt is appropriate.
The Youth Empowerment program will still involve home visits, but the idea is to send teams that don't consist of people wearing badges whenever possible. Concerns about a youth with a gun or having committed major violent offenses will still involve the police. But there will be an emphasis on restorative justice, accountability and doing right by any victims rather than just putting the youth in the criminal justice system or locking them up.
Part of the effort involves a $90,000 contract with CKone, LLC. The consulting group, which has a background in gang violence prevention in Chicago, is charged with laying a foundation that prevents juvenile violence and gang membership from happening in the first place.
"We are having conversations, allowing them to speak their mind along with giving them some positive reinforcement that changes their way of thinking," said the organization's Charles Perry. "We have young people who are not being given a chance to share what's going on with them. Just a family visit is not enough. They need to have a place where they can come talk and air things out with someone who will listen and really understand."
Lalley has publicly acknowledged that's not her department's area of expertise. She and Dixon share a desire to see the program taken over and run totally by a community-based organization at some point. The bridge to that is enlisting existing community groups and seeing what they can bring to the table.
So far, Elgin Area School District U-46, the Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Elgin, Kingdom Advancement Center, Vineyard Church, First United Methodist Church, Greater Grace Community Church, First Christian Church and Congregation Kneseth Israel are all on board.
Organizers are working on recruiting Hispanic and female-based organizations to join the team. In the meantime, Dixon recognized any program that still involves the police may fuel some skepticism. He asked for some patience while the program gets its footing and builds. As more community groups get involved, the police department and school district will play a lesser role.
"Because we do something doesn't mean we are going to have it all figured out," Dixon told the city council. "But this program is starting off with the best of intentions."
In an interview, Lalley said the success of the program, at least in the early going, will be based on a reduction in the contact police have with juveniles in the community, particularly repeated contacts with the same youth. But there is also much to be gained in a better overall community view of the police department and its efforts to be a positive factor for all Elgin residents.
"It's not always about numbers," Lalley said. "Families being supported, people having access to resources -- those things can be hard to measure. There's quantity and then there's quality. We didn't have to change anything, but we want a positive relationship with our residents. I have no problem with criticism. It makes you evaluate your work. And now we have to be persistent and believe that what we're doing here is going to work out for the betterment of our community."