An Honest Conversation

Local law enforcement, formerly incarcerated mentors talk criminal justice with county youth



Almost a year after the death of George Floyd and the ensuing national calls for police reform and accountability, a group of Humboldt County law enforcement officers sat with a couple of ex-convicts for a discussion on criminal justice with local youth.

For the Humboldt Independent Practice Associations' Boys to Men support groups, the discussion started weeks before they recently met with the panel at the McKinleyville Middle School gym for a conversation about justice.

"This is very hard and much needed work in our community, and areas across the nation," Vanessa Vrtiak, the school-based health center program coordinator, said in an email to the Journal. "It was wonderful to see both sides be courageous, model vulnerability and transparency. Our goal was to provide some healing and humanize both worlds and I felt like we did that. ... It's very important that we use this as a jumping off point and continue to have conversations on justice. It's one of the many ways we can put a dent in the school-to-prison pipeline and empower our youth."

The panel discussion fit the group's mission of promoting healthy relationships, this time among law enforcement agencies, to mitigate high trauma rates among local youth. On a Monday earlier this month, the McKinleyville Middle School gym was filled with 30 male-identifying students from McKinleyville Middle School, McKinleyville High School and the Humboldt County Office of Education Court and Community School's Boys to Men support groups, who'd readied questions about the criminal justice system for both officers and the formerly incarcerated pannelists.

The Humboldt IPA's school-based health center on the McKinleyville Middle School Campus was first established in 2019 and primarily focuses on providing support services through empowerment groups for students. The Boys to Men group was one of the first and has since expanded to include groups at other local schools.

The groups meet weekly and focus on developing stronger peer-to-peer support systems, promoting leadership skills, encouraging emotional wellness and fostering a deeper sense of community, which program leaders believe will lower absenteeism rates and better prepare students to transition into adulthood.

The goal of the conversation on justice was to promote honesty and help students understand how both sides of the justice system work and feel, exposing them to the perspectives of those who enforce laws and some people who used to break them.

The panel featured Roberto Gomez and Tyler Parr, two Boys to Men mentors who have spent time incarcerated in their lives but reached a point where they felt it was time to make a change. Speaking of their personal experiences, both men said their time in jail had been intimidating and scary.

"Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability," Tony Wallin, the discussion's moderator and a formerly incarcerated Boys to Men mentor, said to Gomez and Parr. "It's hard to admit something like going to jail is scary, right? We don't tend to say things like that but it is. It's scary as hell."

Both Gomez and Parr said their criminal paths began with a lack of places to go and clubs to join that offered positive and supportive role models and mentors. With few positive options, both turned to hanging out with the "wrong people" and, eventually, to drugs.

Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal participated in the panel and agreed that having support and someone to turn to for guidance are important factors missing for too many kids locally.

"It's tough — it's difficult growing up in Humboldt County," he said. "One thing we have to recognize is that we have some of the highest (rates of) adverse childhood experiences within our county, which means that our kids experience more trauma when they're young than other places in the state, and so we have to recognize that and offer things for our youth. One thing that's always been there when I was a kid — and currently — our kids are bored, right? There's nothing to do. So, we must create things for our kids. But ... what's much more important is to have someone believe in you."

That is something Gomez utterly understands: the dire need of having a positive role model in a child's life. He's now trying to be what he didn't have, and his discussions with students focus on prevention and acceptance, as he hopes to help students avoid making the same mistakes he did.

Gomez and Parr also talked about how having a criminal record has made it more difficult to find good paying jobs, affected child custody battles and changed the way they perceive themselves.

"I think one of the biggest ways having a record affected me was having an impact on my self-esteem because, no matter what, if I complete the programs that they tell me to complete, if I turn my life around and I'm a whole different person, no matter what, I have to carry that (record) with me," Gomez said. "There's no escape from that."

The panel also featured Ray Watson, detention services director for Humboldt County Probation, who talked about how the juvenile detention center has become more trauma-informed and reflective, and less reactive.

"[Juvenile hall] went from the model of (correctional officers) standing against the wall, watching them, making sure they didn't get in trouble and reacting to that, to being more engaging," he said. "We talk with the youth and get to know them so when there's a crisis, the youth trust you and you can handle it better. ... Juvenile hall is becoming a more home-like environment."

The shift to a more trauma-informed approach comes amid a downward trend in juvenile arrests.

According to a report published by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, "the number of juvenile arrests in 2019 was at its lowest level since 1980, with much of the decline occurring within the past 10 years," adding that the declines have been greater for males in most offense categories. In Humboldt County, the juvenile hall population has decreased by 75.5 percent since 2002, according to a Board of State and Community Corrections Juvenile Detention Profile Survey.

During the group discussions about the criminal justice system, students watched the PBS documentary They Call Us Monsters, which looks at three incarcerated teenagers in juvenile hall and explores the topic of sentencing children to life without parole — a question that the students also had for the panel.

"Do you agree with charging youth as adults? Or giving life without parole? If so, does that mean people cannot change?" Wallin asked.

The panelists were hesitant to answer but ultimately did. While Parr, Gomez and Honsal agreed that charges should depend greatly on the circumstances, others like Watson and Bear River Police officer Joshua Bates said they don't believe kids should be tried as adults.

Bates said he feels "extremely violent crimes with very ill intent" are rare.

"I think when we charge youth as adults, a lot of them committed crimes because they turned to people who would give them attention, like gang members, but there's caveats — 'I'll take you in and be your homie, but you have to do illegal things,'" he said.

Students also asked the law enforcement panelists questions about mental health, police policies and practices that will better serve youth and lead to more positive community interactions.

Honsal talked about the training his deputies complete, like crisis intervention, and touted his department's plan to create positive first interactions between deputies and local youth. Bates detailed his department's "boots on the ground" community policing practices, which sees officers walk in neighborhoods while engaging with the community members they come across.

Overall, the conversation was captivating. Vrtiak said she felt the meeting was an "incredible starting point" and students were highly engaged, so much so that when she passed around a basket of snacks no one grabbed any.

The Boys to Men groups hope to continue these conversations and transparency by creating "accountability statements," that'll be written by students and hopefully signed by law enforcement agencies. The statements ask agencies for things the students see as important, like training officers on implicit bias and trauma-informed practices, supporting early intervention efforts and "boots on the ground" programs like Bear River's.

But the statements are a two-way street, Vrtiak notes, explaining that if students ask law enforcement for something, the boys must also promise to meet them in the middle, pledging to treat cops as people and to reach out to them when they need help.

"Our hope for the accountability statements is that each law enforcement agency in Humboldt County will consider the demands of our students and help us work toward a more just, peaceful community," Vrtiak said. "We want to do everything we can to end the school-to-prison pipeline and to empower our youth to feel safe and supported in our community."

Iridian Casarez (she/her) is a staff writer at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.


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