CHELSEA — When the nonprofit Roca began its mission to help at-risk young people in Chelsea 25 years ago, almost nobody in the community wanted to work with the police — and the feeling was mutual.
Through trial and error, Roca and the Chelsea Police Department have figured out a way to work together to help the city’s young men stay away from crime, drugs, and even gangs.
“This relationship wasn’t always the greatest,” said Police Chief Brian Kyes, who acknowledged that much of the community’s mistrust originated in the 1980s and early ’90s, when police were not open to the idea of cooperation. “We weren’t about partnerships.”
Kyes, who has been the chief of police in Chelsea since 2007, said that in the mid-1990s, attitudes changed and police realized that they needed to be more in synch with groups like Roca that were working to help the community.
Today, the police and Roca provide a two-pronged approach to helping young men ages 17 to 24 who are at risk of serious criminal behavior. The police officers help identify the most at-risk candidates — those who have already been involved in lesser crimes or who are getting into trouble on the streets — then shepherd them toward Roca, whose youth workers step in to try to help them live safer, healthier lives.
“If there was not a Roca to deal with this group, then our problems would be multiplied,” Kyes said.
Roca works especially with those at risk of poverty and violence, and helps them meet specific goals that move them toward economic independence.
In the last decade, the relationship between the two agencies started to gain momentum but it still lacked the coordination needed to make a substantial difference. The turning point came about two years ago when Ed Conley, the former head of the police drug unit, learned more about Roca after being appointed a lieutenant. Conley began coordinating and collaborating with Dana Betts, the director of programming at Roca. They established goals for working more efficiently with the Chelsea community.
Conley said he sees the partnership with Roca as essential to steering young people away from criminal behavior.
“There’s a developmental-age issue that cops do not know how to deal with,” he said.
Tha Thai, a crisis coordinator at Roca, said the city’s young people resisted when they first learned that Roca was working with the police. But over time, as the police have shown their commitment to the program, the relationship has improved, he said, and young people are less reluctant to ask for help from police and Roca staff.
Betts said Roca’s success in Chelsea can be attributed to a few major components — building a dialogue within the community; the hands-on work done by youth workers, providing job and career training and other skills; and cooperating with important organizations in the community like the Police Department.
During training, Chelsea police officers take a four-hour class at Roca in which they learn about the nonprofit’s procedures and mission, and tour the facility to become more familiar with it. Police officers and Roca staff also meet twice a week to discuss issues in the community.
According to a Roca report this year on outcomes in Chelsea, during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 150 of Chelsea’s high-risk youth were helped through the partnership. Often, police helped identified at-risk youths — it could be someone on probation, doing required community service, or simply known to officers on the beat — then Roca would begin working with them, assigning trained youth workers to guide them with schooling and job training, provide help with life skills, engage them in social activities, and be available in emergencies. The police officers also followed up and tracked the progress of the individuals they referred. As more youth participated, word spread, and an atmosphere of trust grew in the community.
Similar progress was reported in Revere, East Boston, and Malden, communities where Roca has worked for about 20 years.
Just like the police, Roca has also evolved in how it works with the community.
“We’ve always been good at establishing relationships with young people,” Betts said. “We realized we needed to have more than just relationships.”
About seven years ago, Roca started analyzing its work with youth in Chelsea to improve its procedures and document its performance. The results, Betts said, showed that the more engaged participants were, the better they did staying away from jail and landing jobs gave them even more incentive.
“This changed the game for us,” said Betts
The success of the collaboration between Roca and the police has been achieved during a time when police academies across the country have been spending fewer resources on juvenile justice issues.
Police academies in 37 states, including Massachusetts, spent less than 1 percent of training hours on juvenile justice issues, a recent survey showed. Conley said his department has simply figured out how to be more effective within its budget.
“The four-hour block of training didn’t cost us anything more. That was already allocated for the year’s budget,” he said.
Roca, which operates through grants and other funding, received $200,000 in contracts from the city of Chelsea last year. National organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also contribute to Roca.
Of the partnership with Chelsea police, Roca founder and executive director Molly Baldwin said, “It’s just really important that we work together,’’ that institutions, organizations, and families help young people change their lives.