December 6, 2016

Meet a Millennial who’s forging relationships between youth and police

For Baltimore native Lamontre Randall, breaking down barriers between law enforcement and community is more important than ever

Members of the Baltimore City Police Youth Advisory Board meet with Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, center. Photo courtesy of Lamontre Randall

For Lamontre Randall, a 23-year-old Baltimore resident and recent graduate of the University of Maryland, working to fix community relations with the city’s police is as much a personal goal as it is good policy. In college, Randall was falsely accused of theft and his experience with with a couple of aggressive policemen made him realize that a breakdown in communication might be core to the fractured relationship between cops and the community. And then, when Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, was shot by police in Baltimore in the spring of 2015, Randall’s interest in community and policing took on a palpable sense of urgency. In the months following, he developed a program called Millennials on the Ground that enlists young residents of Baltimore to serve as liaisons between the police and the community they serve.

I chatted with Randall about his new project last week. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is Millennials on the Ground?

LAMONTRE RANDALL: Millennials on the Ground is a proposal we published based on the findings of the Department of Justice report that found that young people were targeted by Baltimore police throughout the city. Millennials on the Ground is focused on getting us toward 21st century policing—getting us to see what community policing is and what community policing should be. Millennials on the Ground provides feedback to officers, gives them a report card on how they are behaving and how they could better behave. It acts as a relationship building tool because we have young Millennials doing community events that help them understand the officers and allow the officers to learn about the community they serve. A lot of times we have officers who are not from Baltimore and don’t understand Baltimore culture, don’t know Baltimore key stakeholders, and it’s hard for them to make the dialogue with the community. These Millennials also act as mediators on the ground that help facilitate the interaction between police and the community.

Community organizer Lamontre Randall founded Millennials on the Ground, a program that enlists young residents of Baltimore to serve as liaisons between the police and the community. Photo courtesy of Lamontre Randall

Give me an example of one of the community initiatives you’ve organized through Millennials on the Ground.

RANDALL: I teamed up with University of Maryland, and we did an event as part of the Baltimore Stories Project, where we got people to see who the officers were behind the badge. It was great because the young people were able to really see who these officers were, and the officers also got that one-on-one interaction, on a personal level, that a lot of them may not have been able to get all the time. What shocked me was the transition that I got to see up close and personal. These young people were told they would be meeting with officers and said: “Ugh, I don’t want to be here.” But as the officers exposed and shared who they were as people, the kids said: “Oh OK, I actually like this person.”

You need patience because the police department has its own culture and you have to take time to really understand it and see their viewpoints on things.

What are some of the challenges you’re still facing with Millennials on the Ground?

RANDALL: Right now we’re looking for funding, different grant opportunities, and really trying to figure out what we’re doing and is it feasible. And the answer so far has been, yes. Going into this, I didn’t realize there would be so many different layers to it. People don’t know, but the first battle with this proposal has been really trying to get underneath the barriers between the police and the community. Within the police department, it’s not always that easy for the officers to really commit to you and really trust you. It takes time to build that trust. What it took was ride-alongs, listening to them, really getting to know the officer, and allowing them to go in-depth about what they feel the problem is. It also took me talking to community members. Right now tensions are so high that, for community members, it’s really tough for you to push anything police-related on them. It took me sitting down with activists, with people in gangs, people on the corner maybe selling drugs. It took me sitting down with key stakeholders in the community to get that buy-in.

What advice would you give somebody who wants to create a similar program in a different city like Cleveland or Oakland?

RANDALL: I’d tell anybody who wants to get involved in bettering the relationship between the police and the community—especially if you’re a young person—that you’ve got to have patience, you’ve got to have the willingness and the desire. You need patience because the police department has its own culture and you have to take time to really understand it and see their viewpoints on things. Everybody here wanted our proposal to happen right then and there, and I tell them that if it had happened right then and there, we would not have been able to live up to the expectations. Each city has its unique problems and its own culture. In Baltimore, for example, our specific problem is recruiting people from Baltimore to the police. You have to understand that it takes time to gather all the research and understand the issue.

Gabriel Muller

The Renewal Project