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At Center For Teen Empowerment, Youth And Police Breaking Barriers

DORCHESTER (CBS) — Despite a history of racial tension, Boston has largely avoided crises like those seen recently in Baltimore, Ferguson, and Dallas–and CBS This Morning Wednesday morning showed how one local program is bridging the gaps between police and youth in the neighborhoods they patrol.

Gang and gun violence in Dorchester was wide-spread when The Center for Teen Empowerment moved to the neighborhood seven years ago. And while the area still struggles with crime, young people there are now part of the solution thanks to the program.

“This is a tough time for police and community relations right now in America, it’s not a secret,” said Officer Zach Crossen at a recent Teen Empowerment meeting.

The program has teens and cops engaging in many non-traditional ways, and the end result is disarming for both sides.

“Having them stand in each other’s shoes, they see someone who may be exactly like them who faces the exact same challenges,” said Stanley Pollack, who founded the program in 1992.

The program gathered gang members–sworn enemies–and brokered a peace deal between them. And it worked–during a 29-month period in the mid-90s, nobody under 21 was killed in the city.

“One of the things that took place was that there was belief in young people and there was an investment in young people as leaders,” said Pollack, who says he sees these teens as the agents of change. “It begins not because they have a problem, but because they have something to offer.”

A recent meeting at the Center for Teen Empowerment in Dorchester. (CBS This Morning)

A recent meeting at the Center for Teen Empowerment in Dorchester. (CBS This Morning)

From 2015-16, homicides have remained flat in the parts of Boston where the program operates–but throughout the entire city, homicides went up 36 percent.

Dante Omorogbe, one of the youth leaders for the program, told CBS’s Michelle Miller that he’s been stopped by police hundreds of times–but never been arrested. He is now paid to organize events and recruit new members for Teen Empowerment.

This past summer, Omorogbe met Officer Crossen in a Dorchester park. It was a case of mistaken identity after some recent shooting activity in the neighborhood.

When asked if he was worried about stereotyping Omorogbe, Crossen said he gets it.

“I’m not naive to understand,” he said. “I know I’m a white police officer in a predominately minority neighborhood and that’s a huge thing to overcome.”

But Omorogbe and Crossen did overcome it–with Omorogbe handing Officer Crossen a Teen Empowerment flyer over the fence.

Asked if he normally hands out flyers for the programs when he sees police officers, Omorogbe smiled and said “I do now.”

Crossen and Omorogbe realize the obstacles facing them, as they are haunted by the faces of both unarmed black men killed by police, and police officers killed in the line of duty.

“I want to go home to my family just as much as anybody else wants to go home to theirs,” Officer Crossen said.

(CBS This Morning)

Dante Omorogbe. (CBS This Morning)

But they believe what’s going on in Boston is different.

“I can sit down and have a conversation with an officer,” Omorogbe said. “If there happens to be a time where I have to be stopped, you know there’s not going to be that hostility, because you know, okay, that’s Dante, we’re on common ground.”

Omorogbe said he had dropped out of school, was homeless, and had even considered selling drugs.

“There’s no love on these streets. You know there are only two ways. It’s either die or go to jail,” Omorogbe said–but he talks about making a third choice, “a change,” while wiping a tear away.

Now, he’s back at school, working to graduate this spring. He’s technically homeless–he is staying with friends, and with the help of the program, hopes to be independent soon.

He also dreams of becoming a social worker someday, because he says so many social workers have helped him through his tough times.

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