WORCESTER, Mass. — Music is often called a universal language because of its ability to break down barriers and bring people of all backgrounds together.
That's what's happening in Worcester, where police officers are using music and art to build bonds with young people in the city's neighborhoods.
Officer Justin Bennes of the Gang Unit created AMPP, which stands for Arts and Music Police Partnership.
Bennes explained that most outreach by the police has focused on sports, but AMPP is "an innovative way, an outside of the box thing, to reach more kids in the city."
Abby Awino is a high school student who loves to play guitar. She never thought she'd be jamming with police officers but admits AMPP is changing her perception of law enforcement.
"They're not just like the image that people portray them. There is more to them than just being a police officer. They come and show us not all police officers are scary people," said Awino.
Students like Tina Lee are encouraged to come and record their own songs on state-of-the-art equipment. "This is like my second home. It allows me to explore and learn new things."
Last year students produced a music video in collaboration with other young musicians from around the country following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. It's called 17 Lives.
"A lot of students had something to say and they really didn't feel like they were being heard," said Bennes. "They just wanted to be heard so I think it had a profound impact on the kids."
The program is growing at a time when tensions can often be strained between police and young people.
Officer Chris Grilli, who teaches the drums to students, said, "I think building relationships with the community and getting to know kids on an artistic and musical level in a capacity that's not traditionally associated with police work is just another tool for us to use to make us better at what we do."
If you listen to Abby Awino, that seems to be happening. "I think it's cool because it's not every day that you find a police officer teaching music or taking their time to teach people how to play, or just to hang out with us."
Bennes loves getting a chance to play his guitar, but this program has him setting his sights a little higher. "If we can make a change in a kid's life, that's all we're really looking to do."
AMPP, which receives funding through a state crime prevention grant, is also partnering with institutions like the Worcester Art Museum to expand their programming.
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