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“I See You”: Vice President Biden Honors 14 White House Champions of Change

Meet seven extraordinary pairs of young people and law enforcement officials who are building bridges in their communities.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet seven remarkable pairs of young people and law enforcement officials being honored by Vice President Biden, Attorney General Lynch and Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett as Champions of Change for their work in building trust and improving public safety in their communities.  

In the President’s remarks to the Congressional Black Caucus earlier this week, he reminded us that “when we assume the best in each other rather than the worst, then change happens.”  In reference to law enforcement, he added, “Officers show uncommon bravery in our communities every single day.  They deserve our respect.” 

The Champions of Change we honored at the White House this week are a testament to what can happen when youth and police assume the best in each other and respect one another as individuals.  Among this group was a police officer and skateboarder who together launched a community skate park in Apex, North Carolina; a youth mentor working with a police foot patrol team to conduct outreach to homeless youth in Portland, Oregon; and a 12-year old who is collaborating with the Montgomery County Police Department to teach police cadets about living with autism.  Other pairs consisted of the President of a high school criminal justice club and School Resource Officer from Bonner Springs, Kansas; an officer in Grand Prairie, Texas, who developed a youth boxing program and a young female boxer who is nationally ranked; and a cop who became friends with a young man through a local music/arts mentoring program in Hartford, Connecticut.   

Champions of Change
Photo Credit: Department of Justice

Milwaukee Police Officer Bill Singleton and Erica Lofton, the 14-year old CEO of Girls in Action, Inc. kicked off the event.  After losing a friend to gun violence last year, Erica used money she had won from a talent show to purchase anti-violence bracelets that read, “I don’t commit violence, I speak out against it.”  Working with Officer Singleton and others in the community, Erica has distributed nearly 2,000 of these anti-violence bracelets as a method of initiating dialogue and uniting the community around a common cause. 

Wearing one of Erica’s anti-violence bracelets, Vice President Biden applauded each of the Champions and reiterated that the vast majority of law enforcement officials serve their communities with courage and honor, often putting their lives at risk to protect others.  He also spoke about a Maasai greeting that translates into English as, “I see you,” or “I value you,” and used this phrase to describe the need for law enforcement and community members to see, recognize and value one another’s humanity. 

Watch the Vice President’s remarks below: 

During the ceremony, the White House also invited Caron Butler, who plays for the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, and Rick Geller, a former police officer from Racine, Wisconsin, to share the unlikely story of their friendship.  In 1998, a police raid found drugs in Caron’s garage.  Despite pressure from some of his colleagues, then-Sergeant Geller decided against pressing charges that would have likely landed Caron in a prison for several years.  He recognized Caron’s efforts to turn his life around, including his job at Burger King, and believed Caron’s statements that he was unaware of the drugs.  In doing so, he provided Caron with a second chance to pursue his dreams of one day playing in the NBA. 

Later in the day, Attorney General Lynch announced a series of grants, in keeping with the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, to help strengthen police and community relations.  These grants included $107 million from the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring Program aimed at creating 866 law enforcement positions across the country, an award of over $23 million for a body worn camera pilot program to support law enforcement agencies in 32 states, and an additional award of $500,000 to fund a joint effort of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Coalition for Juvenile Justice to convene a youth and law enforcement roundtable and to develop an institute for sharing best practices on issues surrounding juvenile justice.

Valerie Jarrett closed out the event by speaking about the important contributions that each Champion of Change has made in his or her community and the important example each individual has set for the nation.

To learn more about these inspiring Champions of Change, here are some personal reflections they shared with us in advance of the event:

Anthony Davis

Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, my view of police was not a positive one.  When I was 19, I came across an officer who changed my point of view. That officer got out of his patrol car and had a conversation with me.  He played basketball with us.  He didn't harass us.  

So when I was done with school and sports, I knew that I wanted to help people. I started my career out as a Sheriff’s Deputy, and worked my way up to Lieutenant.  After seven years of working in a detention facility, I wanted to find a position that would allow me to help people in the community and help impact the decisions they made before they ended up behind bars.

Anthony Davis

I became a police officer to reach the community in a positive way.  When a School Resource Officer position became available, I knew that was what I wanted to do. Being in full uniform every day as I walk the halls and interact with students is a great way to connect and show them that police care. My goal is to teach students that I am a regular man and that I care about their future. I do not want kids to have to wait like I did, as a young adult, to figure out that law enforcement officials are good people and are here to help.

Anthony Davis is a Master Patrol Officer in Bonner Springs, Kansas, and serves as the School Resource Officer at Bonner Springs High School. 

Blake McMahan

Growing up, I knew I wanted to serve my community by becoming a law enforcement officer. At an early age, I met a police officer who allowed me to sit in his patrol car and offered me a ride home.  We kept in touch and from that point on, I was hooked.  I am fortunate enough to attend a school that offers criminal justice courses. Once I learned more about the field I was inspired to get others involved, so with the help of my teacher Mr. Howe, we formed the school’s first ever Criminal Justice Club.

Through this organization I gained leadership skills and acquired abilities that have prepared me for my future. I was also able to strengthen the relationship between my school and the local police department. Officer Anthony Davis and Chief of Police Mark Zaretski served as mentors for my peers and myself. With their guidance, I was able to compete and place amongst the top qualifiers in my state’s first-ever high school level criminal justice competition. I was also able to shadow local officers to further educate myself on the roles police have in our community.

As I get set to graduate and pursue my career, I am thankful for the opportunity to connect with so many wonderful role models, who not only prepared me to succeed, but showed me how vital it is to make a connection with your community.

Blake McMahan is a senior at Bonner Springs High School in Bonner Springs, Kansas. He plans on attending college to pursue a career in law enforcement. 

Jake Edwards

My parents always told me that I am a Super Hero. They never wanted my Autism to be a negative, but a gift. My sensory is super-powered: I have a great sense of smell, amazing vision, deep emotions and the ability to “hear” things that usually go unheard by “neuro-typicals.”

Another trait that comes with Autism is impulsivity. One time I made a quick decision to run outdoors during the winter. After I felt how cold it was outside, I yelled for help, which caught the attention of concerned neighbors and police.

My first experience with law enforcement went well, and it changed my life forever. Officer Laurie Reyes of the Montgomery County Department of Police realized quickly that I can teach others how the symptoms impact my 12-year-old life. Then they made me Autism Ambassador for the Montgomery County Department of Police! I presented the keynote speech for the annual Autism Night Out event and the requests for appearances started rolling in.

My goal is to teach police about ASD while encouraging his friends to trust police. This relationship is important thousands of folks with Autism are gaining independence and seeking acceptance in their communities.

This blog entry is Jake's experience as written by Jake’s mother and father, Jenn Lynn and Christopher Edwards.

Laurie Reyes

I have been an officer with the Montgomery County Department of Police for seventeen years.  For the past ten years, I have been the coordinator of the Montgomery County Police Department - Autism and Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities (IDD) Outreach Program.   Initially, I developed and implemented the program to address the increased calls for service involving individuals with Autism and IDD.  As I became more involved with assisting the Autism and IDD communities, it became apparent to me that I needed to create a multi-level approach to the program: to provide education and awareness to individuals with Autism and IDD, as well as provide that knowledge to law enforcement, caregivers, and the community.  I began providing Autism and IDD education to our incoming recruits and current officers who were enrolled in the Department’s Crisis Intervention Training.   I discovered that officers wanted to know and understand more about Autism and IDD.   I found that once officers had a better understanding of Autism and IDD, they were better able to serve the needs of individuals with Autism and IDD and felt a sense of accomplishment that they were able to use the resources provided to them to successfully resolve issues. 

Jake Edwards

I have so many stories of our Montgomery County police officers going the “extra mile,” not only by ensuring the well-being of individuals with Autism and IDD but also by building lasting relationships with these persons.  I work with some of the most compassionate and amazing officers who make the world better for individuals with Autism and IDD.  The most important and satisfying part of my job is the direct outreach provided to young people with Autism and IDD by myself and the officers who assist me on a daily basis.  Both the officers and the young men and women with Autism develop a better understanding of each other and I believe, become better people because of each other.   I know that for many young men and women who have Autism and IDD, there will be unavoidable challenges and “bumps in the road.”  But, I hope that my work and the work of the Montgomery County Police Autism and IDD Outreach Program will allow for those “bumps” to be a little more navigable. 

I am so proud and excited to share that our current and future recruit class instructions will include a meeting with Autism self-advocate Jake, the Department’s Autism Night Out 2015 Ambassador.  Jake will speak to the recruits about some of his struggles as well as his “Autism super powers.”        

Laurie Reyes is a Police Officer for the Montgomery County Department of Police Montgomery County, Maryland.

Jacques Gilbert

On a hot, humid day in July 2012, I knocked on the door of Tracy Stallworth a rising junior at a local high school. I was responding to yet another report of a skateboard noise disturbance and Tracy was the primary culprit. While listening to Tracy’s frustrations about the lack of locations to skateboard, I learned a lot about the skateboarding culture and industry. As a result of that conversation, I met with Tracy and a few of his skateboarding friends at a local restaurant and shared how I wanted to help them.

I told them about a community organization I started in 2011 called the Vine919 which has a mission to prosper youth within the community and raise awareness of the need for more activities and locations for teens to gather. I presented the idea of a skateboard competition and free skate event in Apex.

In September 2012, we launched the first event with over 100 skateboarders showcasing their skills on a blistering hot day. My message to the parents and youth that day was, “We will have a skate park in Apex. Believe with me.” Fast forward to August 2015, and the vision I believe God gave me became reality as the Skate Plaza officially opened, bringing hundreds in attendance. The impossible was made possible through faith, trust, and the willingness to get up and do something. A problem is always an opportunity to be part of the solution. The plaza continues to bring local skateboarders as well as many others from surrounding towns and states.

I appreciate the opportunity given to me by Chief Letteney and town officials to be part of community problem solving.  Youth are our future leaders; we must continue to invest in them. There’s just one thing we have to do - take the time to listen and understand them.

Jacques Gilbert serves as a Captain with the Apex Police Department, where he has served for over 25 years. 

Alex Bielawski

As a Police Officer in the City of Grand Prairie, I’ve had many opportunities.  As a patrol officer, working the streets, through the 11 years as a SWAT officer and finally as a Sergeant helping other officers do the best job they could in serving our community and, making the city safer for our citizens.  As our motto says:  “We Serve and Protect.”

In 2012, Chief Steve Dye approached me and told me that we were starting a youth boxing program and, that I would be in charge of it.  I remember asking him, “Is it important that I don’t know anything about boxing?”

Well, I learned and, am still learning. 

As soon as the program was announced, the support was overwhelming.  Superintendent Dr. Susan Hull of the Grand Prairie Independent School District immediately provided a gym at an elementary school for us.  Volunteer coaches came to us, we didn’t even have to seek them out.  Gerardo Contreras and Freddy Sanchez, both amateur boxers in their youth and experienced coaches, did an outstanding job helping me to pick the equipment we would need.  Local business leaders jumped in to help.  Dallas Children’s Charities, Lone Star Charities and Dr. Elba Garcia came to us with monetary donations. 

We promoted the program in the schools and on our website and, the response was tremendous.  We were not creating fighters.  We were creating “Leaders through Boxing.”  We were giving these young athletes a safe place in a positive environment to develop their skills.  To stay physically fit.  Develop confidence and, work with others.

And, we tried to reward their work.  As they progressed through local tournaments, and qualified for National events, we provided them an opportunity to compete and to travel.  I was fortunate to travel to Chattanooga, Tennessee, with Hector and Beto to compete in the US National Championships.  Indeya competed in Washington State.  And, earlier this year, I was able to take Indeya and Hector to Colorado Springs to compete.

These young men and women are some of the most respectful and hardworking people I have ever met.  It’s a pleasure to be in public with them and see the Grand Prairie Police logo proudly displayed on their uniforms.

Alex Bielawski is a sergeant who has served for 30 years with the Grand Prairie Texas Police Department. 

Indeya Smith

When I joined Grand Prairie Police Youth Boxing Program two years ago I never imagined that it would open so many doors for me. I have traveled all over the country representing the Grand Prairie Police Team in different boxing tournaments. I have experienced different cultures in the various cities and interacted with the unique people who live there.

Most importantly I have been given the opportunity to become an intern for the Grand Prairie Police Department. Now I am able to serve my community alongside the officers who have been with me through my boxing journey.  This internship gives me the opportunity to help the members of the Department as we join in a partnership to serve the citizens of my community.  Currently, I have been assigned to patrol the neighborhoods while looking for potential dangers, taking various complaint reports, and helping greet citizens at the front desk of the Public Safety Building.  My job is to do whatever I can to assist the police officers, which in turn helps the citizens of this beautiful City. With my help, patrol officers are able to get more things accomplished for the citizens.  My assignment as a Grand Prairie Police Intern means that I can help to better the City of Grand Prairie, Texas, a city I have grown to love very much.

Indeya Smith is student at the Tarrant County Community College and intern with the Grand Prairie Police Department.  She currently competes for the Grand Prairie Police Youth Boxing Program and is nationally ranked.

Hiram Otero

I have been a Police Officer for approximately 12 years in Hartford, CT. Growing up, I was faced with many challenges, such as poor guidance from my educators and a lack of support from positive role models. Growing up in low-income housing, I have always felt as if I was a failure. Being raised by a single mother was challenging as we had limited resources. I was not raised by my father, which caused a void in my life, as I was not able to identify with a male figure.

As I was growing up I hoped for a mentor to help me with difficult decisions that I faced. There was no one to help me make the right choices in order to succeed.  Due to the lack of resources in my community, I did not have the opportunity to connect with a mentor, which resulted in me dropping out of school. This was a choice that I regret most in my life.  A few years later I took it upon myself to obtain my high school certificate, and later in my adulthood proceeded to further my education by earning a Bachelor’s Degree. Through my faith in God, and the hope that he instills in me, I believed that there was a "Champion" in me.

These past experiences are important to me to share with the youth. As a police officer, I carry many roles. One of the most important roles to me is being a mentor. In April 2015, I along with other colleagues participated in the Good Vibrations Pilot program that was organized by the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford and the Hartford Police Department. This program consists of mentoring local youth through the Arts by learning to play the guitar and expressing oneself through rap/poetry. As part of my task of mentoring the youth, they too were mentoring me as I was reliving my dream. During the course of this program, I learned that trust had to be earned by both the youth and me. At the start of the program, the youth were not very open. I was a stranger and wore a uniform that the youth were hesitant to trust. As the weeks went by and we got to know each other personally, barriers were torn down and the youth became very enthusiastic. I was truly honored to be part of the "Good Vibrations" program. I believe that my participation in the program will have a positive impact on these youth for the rest of their lives, as it has impacted mine. My belief is that there is a "Champion and a Mentor" in everyone.

Hiram Otero is a Community Service Officer-Faith Based Initiative in Hartford, Connecticut.

Kayke Lopes

When I was eight years old I had my first experience with the police.  My cousin accidentally hit the neighbor’s car with a bat.  When the woman next door called the police they said that they could put us all in jail right then.  I was afraid of the police and thought that they were just there to arrest people.

This spring I took a rap poetry class and the police were part of the class.  The cops played and wrote raps with us.  They told us that real police try to help the community and solve problems.  One of the cops wrote a rap line “you know when you give, you get respect. Nobody expects the kids and the cops to connect.”  I wrote “keep walking when the drugs are in front of you, cause they can make you do things you don’t wanna do.”  Now I know that cops can be fun people when we get to know each other. 

I want the cops to know that some kids are lonely and feel left out inside.  Cops should visit the schools and talk to the kids.  My teachers and the cops taught me to act confident and I look up to them.  Now I think I want to be a cop when I grow up! 

Kayke Lopes is a seventh grader from Hartford, Connecticut.

Erica Lofton

I am short, resilient and silly.  I make mistakes, I can sing and I am great friend who can keep a secret.  My name is Erica and these are parts of my character.  Someone said that the fastest way to make a positive impact on your character is to do something for someone else. I think that’s what I had in mind when I founded Girls in Action, Inc., I’m not quite sure because I was only 7.  At Girls in Action, Inc. we promote leadership in girls by using teamwork to promote manners, self-esteem, social and communication skills and we have fun!

I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and I discovered that some of the girls were being robbed of fun because of community violence so I facilitated a mock common council to come up with solutions. The solution was to ask everyone to take a pledge for violence prevention by wearing a silicon wristband that says “I DON’T COMMIT VIOLENCE, I SPEAK OUT AGAINST IT!” Clever, huh? Clever but simple and something everyone can do.

I will continue reaching out and asking everyone to take a pledge against violence. Are you ready to take the pledge? 

Erica Lofton is a 14 year old, ninth grader who attends the University School of Milwaukee. She is the founder and CEO of Girls in Action, Inc.

William Singleton

Relationships.  Understanding.  Caring.  I’m blessed to have come into contact with so many wonderful people in our community that live by those three words.  In the Office of Community Outreach and Education, we understand the impact those words have in our community.  I’m grateful to be a member of our Students Talking it Over with Police (STOP) team and I fully understand the responsibility I have to help facilitate discussions between police and youth.  We are honored to have been able to touch the lives of thousands of students in our program.  We are fortunate to have the support of our schools and community and to be able to have discussions with our young leaders.

Each day we gain more support.  Each day we grow stronger.  Each day our team grows.  We have the best officers, strongest community members and most enthusiastic students.  We will continue to grow and have discussions that help bridge the gap between police and youth.  We are beyond excited for the future in the City of Milwaukee.

William Singleton is the coordinator for the international award winning Students Talking it Over with Police Program.

Ric DeLand

On September 11, 2015, I received a phone call from "Scuba Steve."  Steve was a homeless youth who traveled through Portland last year, one of thousands my team interacted with during a pilot project I supervised called simply "Foot Patrol.”  This project replaced traditional "livability enforcement" strategies with a relationship-building approach designed to encourage young people experiencing homelessness to participate in solutions by partnering with police and outreach workers to overcome the negative stereotypes associated with street youth. The result was a transition from the "worst summer ever" in 2013 to the "best summer ever" in 2014.

Steve, who I hadn't seen in over a year, said he was in Virginia and wanted to call on 9/11 to say that he hears people on the street talk about the Portland Police Department on street corners across the country because of the "ripple in the pond" our approach created.  He said he still thinks about his experience with officers in Portland compared to other places and he wanted me to know that it matters.

Our goal through the “Foot Patrol” project was to break down the barriers created by the uniform and past experience. We used first names, we shared our personal stories, we built trust, and we followed through. We identified the small percentage of predators and bullies and put them in jail. We provided safety for the rest, and they responded by taking responsibility for daily behavior.

It impacted Steve enough to make that call. It impacted all of us, too.

Lieutenant Ric DeLand is a 25-year veteran of the Portland Police Bureau.

Celia Luce

Homeless youth in Portland, Oregon, face stigma, safety concerns, and many barriers to exiting street life. As a Peer Mentor with the Multnomah County Homeless Youth Continuum, I engage with youth on the street and in the drop-in centers. I involve them in healthy recreation activities in the community such as playing basketball in city parks and visiting museums and art galleries. I also participate in Yellow Brick Road, an outreach program in which we connect with youth as well as build strong working relationships with business and police contacts, including the downtown foot patrol led by Officer Ric Deland.

I support the work of the foot patrol because they have excellent rapport with youth on the streets, learning their names, connecting them with services, and checking on their welfare. When the foot patrol officers interact with youth it isn’t about arrests or sweeps or intimidation. Instead, their interactions are about building trust. When the officers talk about their work with youth, it sounds a lot like what I do. I strongly believe in these partnerships that help youth feel safe with police and connect them with people who take an interest in them and their future.

Celia Luce is a Peer Mentor with Outside In in Portland, Oregon. As a Peer Mentor, she is part of a collaborative effort of the Multnomah County Homeless Youth Continuum to support youth in building recovery and gaining the resources and treatment necessary to exit homelessness.

Roy L. Austin, Jr. is the Deputy Assistant to the President for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity in the Domestic Policy Council