Making Connections, Not Arrests

June 12, 2000

"Sam" is teenager in Bridgeport, Connecticut, who has been arrested for criminal mischief, cutting school, vandalism. When his older brother was jailed on a gun charge, Sam sought out police officer Mike Gosha, who he'd heard from friends was "cool." Withdrawn to the point of near-silence, Sam told Mike he didn't care much about his brother's sentence, or about anything really.

At least one of Sam's arrests was for graffiti, and that gave Gosha an idea: "I said, why don't you do a canvas? He chose two paint colors: sharp yellow and a deep purple. Angry colors. I said, 'Who are you mad at, the cops? The judge who put your brother in jail?'"

Sam's response? "No. I'm mad at my brother for being a fool." And that let Gosha know that Sam was on the right track.

After a year in Gosha's United Youth Arts Partnership program, Sam, a 16-year-old high school junior, excels in graphic design, painting and drawing, and recently took a college art class where he "blew everyone away with his talent," according to an admittedly partial Mike Gosha. Sam is working on becoming a mentor and a volunteer art instructor at UYAP, and hasn't had a single arrest since.

Embracing "Graffiti Culture"

United Youth Arts Partnership, Inc. (UYAP) is a community-based arts program that challenges the traditional view that graffiti destroys property and encourages crime, and that all "taggers," or creators of graffiti—some call them vandals; others, artists—are gang members or violent thugs.

Gosha started the partnership to channel the energy and talent he sees sprayed on walls and abandoned buildings into positive acts of expression that help break the barriers between the kids and the community.

"Graffiti art is a wonderful, beautiful, very complex culture for youth. We teach the kids to be loyal to this subculture," he says. "We tell them, 'don't hold yourself back, you can do art—but don't be out there destroying things and hurting people. '"

Since Gosha began working with the kids, graffiti and related arrests in Bridgeport have declined by nearly 80 percent, he says. In 1999, he was named Officer of the Year for this success—a success he credits entirely to the kids and their willingness to work hard and make good choices.

Changing the Focus

In 1997, the Bridgeport PD launched a graffiti reduction campaign, partly funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Gosha was named the graffiti coordinator, and his first official decision was to redirect the department's traditional response to graffiti.

"I attempt to show cops how to work with these kids versus 'deal' with them, to emphasize prevention rather than punishment," he says. "A lot of [law enforcement] funding focuses on crisis buttons, metal detectors in schools, stricter laws. I've even heard the term 'child-friendly prison' being buzzed around now. Where do we stop with this? We've got to get out there and work with the kids."

 In the beginning, reaching out to the kids on his beat was no easy task for an officer trained to react and make arrests, not connections. "I was nervous, rattling in my boots to get out of the car and talk to these kids," he remembers. "You know what to say at a domestic call, or an assault or homicide—but you don't know how or what to say to get out and befriend a child. It's a whole new world. But if you listen, they'll tell you what you need to know."

Using a U.S. Dept. of Justice problem-solving model, Gosha looked beyond the stereotypes of who tags and why and discovered that more than 90 percent of Bridgeport graffiti was neither threatening nor gang-related. Most of the kids were trying to "catch fame," and really considered themselves artists.

For children looking for a voice, punishment and arrests just give them notoriety and actually fuel future acts of vandalism, Gosha says, without addressing the deeper issues of abandonment, self-esteem and identity.

Safe Zones for Free Expression

There are several walls and underpasses across Bridgeport where graffiti still flourishes, and where a cop in a patrol car might pull up brandishing art books and supplies, not handcuffs. These safe zones are the UYAP "Walls of Fame" where artists earn "tagging" rights, through instruction and practice. "They can go and create the art on the walls and photograph it with a digital camera," says Gosha. "We'll try to critique and offer artistic advice."

Most of the art classes are held on weekends in the Police Training Academy facility on the University of Bridgeport campus, deliberately sheltered from crowds and the city's precincts. Local artists and university professors volunteer their time as instructors, helping the kids learn a range of skills, from artistic technique and color mixing to landscape painting and sculpting.

Their talents are impressing more than just Gosha and the volunteers. Bridgeport businesses, animal shelters and even the local baseball team, the Bluefish, have hired UYAP kids to paint signs and murals. Connecticut State Police Troupe G recently commissioned the kids from UYAP to create a giant "G" on the floor of their barracks. And kids from the group will decorate a new YMCA skateboard park in nearby Fairfield, Connecticut with graffiti depicting positive words and concepts.

The kids also organize "give back" activities like graffiti paint-overs, neighborhood cleaning, or shoveling snow for Bridgeport seniors.

"I tell the kids, 'You are introducing to society who you are and what you're about,' and I say to society, 'These are the kids being reintroduced to you, the ones you forgot about,'" Gosha says with a pleased laugh.

For kids who aren't into art, but need adult guidance and support, there are games like chess and Pictionary, music and room dance in the studio next door. There's a park, and a big lawn for games of touch football. And, "If a child wants to unload, they give me a little eye contact, we go into a room and talk privately," says Gosha.

"We'll be There for Them"

How do kids hook up with UYAP? Some come to Gosha after a run-in with the cops, but most come because they've heard about him through friends on the street and in their neighborhoods—or from Gosha himself. Some days, he just walks, searching underpasses, railroad tracks, the woods on the edges of the city, abandoned factories. "That's where these kids go," he says. "Every time I go tracking, I learn something new."

Gosha is the only member of the city's police force dedicated to UYAP, but judging from his energy, which is somewhere near teenager-level, and his love for the work, he's enough to sustain it for now.

Community support is critical—all of the instructors and classroom helpers are volunteers, some of them cops or criminology professors, all of them adults who are concerned about the kids in the program, trying to find a better way to tackle the problems they face in cities like Bridgeport.

For now, most of the money for supplies comes from small donations from local businesses and citizens, and from Gosha's own pockets. Despite police department backing, he says, there's no move to add more staff or funding to the project anytime soon. He's working on grants, hoping some will come through to cover the most pressing needs, like transportation services and more classroom and safe zone space to meet the growing needs of kids who seek him out.

Gosha has contact with roughly 330 kids throughout the state, each of whom has his pager number and can contact him at any time, day or night. Ultimately, he hopes that UYAP will be able to offer space to all the kids who want it, with adult support available 24 hours a day.

"We're all pointing fingers at kids in trouble, and saying, 'It's the media, it's music, it's parents.' No it's not, it's society. It's not always kids who are neglected by their parents. There are solid families, here. But they have them maybe 6 hours a day—who's at fault when they're at school, or outside? We have to be there for them, and we will be there for them."

Learn More

For photos from the program e-mail Mike Gosha at mgraffito@yahoo.com.


Caitlin Johnson was formerly a staff writer at Connect for Kids. She is now Managing Editor of SparkAction.

Caitlin Johnson

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