Black officers' association gives out free backpacks, back-to-school haircuts

Members of the National Black Police Association's Minnesota chapter hope the next generation can see themselves in their shoes in the future


By Mara H. Gottfried
Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — As kids came to a St. Paul rec center to pick up backpacks and school supplies, officer Lorenzo Lamb saw himself in them — and he and other members of the National Black Police Association’s Minnesota chapter hope the next generation can see themselves in their shoes in the future.

Lamb was back to his roots on Tuesday. He grew up on the East Side, where the association was sponsoring the Barbers & Backpacks event outside the Conway Recreation Center.

St. Paul Police Officer Lorenzo Lamb hands a backpack to Demetria Smith at the second annual Barbers & Backpacks event.
St. Paul Police Officer Lorenzo Lamb hands a backpack to Demetria Smith at the second annual Barbers & Backpacks event. (Photo/Scott Takushi of St. Paul Pioneer Press via TNS)

From the time Lamb was a kid, he dreamed of becoming a St. Paul police officer. That happened in October, when he joined the city’s police department.

While Lamb was attending Century College, the nonprofit National Black Police Association awarded him a $1,000 scholarship. The new officer said he’s saving money, so he can pay it forward with a scholarship for another student through NBPA.

As much as officers, deputies, firefighters, barbers and others volunteering Tuesday aimed to help students get ready for the new school year with the practicalities of school supplies and fresh haircuts, they also wanted community members to see and talk to them in a situation that wasn’t an emergency.

And amid a difficult atmosphere of recruiting police officers, president of NBPA’s Minnesota chapter Brad Chin said it’s more important than ever for young people to see officers who look like them and who are giving back, while encouraging them to pursue a career in public safety.

Chin, a St. Paul officer, said there aren’t exact numbers about how many Black officers there are in Minnesota, but he said they’re underrepresented in law enforcement. He estimated only 250 of the state’s 10,600 licensed peace officers are Black.

Among St. Paul’s approximately 550 officers, 7 percent are Black and 5 percent identify as two or more races, according to the department.

Rae Marin, a Maplewood officer and the association’s vice president, said she started college for law enforcement shortly after Philando Castile was fatally shot by a St. Anthony police officer and she was finishing school when a Minneapolis officer killed George Floyd.

“We had this major freeze that set us back and now we’re rebuilding,” she said.

HUNDREDS OF BACKPACKS GIVEN OUT

The National Black Police Association’s Minnesota chapter gave away more than 550 backpacks on Tuesday, and will be heading to a Minneapolis elementary school Wednesday to hand out more.

“These are my favorite things to do,” Marin said. “It’s really an opportunity for us to create those conversations that, when responding to a call, we might not have time for.”

St. Paul police Sgt. Antwan Denson made his way around the crowd outside the rec center, offering a microphone to kids to ask questions of officers who were gathered.

Ahlaan Isaak, 10, asked, “What’s it like to drive a police car?” She smiled as she recalled Denson’s answer — “The seat’s are hard, so it’s not luxury.”

Ahlaan went to see a squad that Maplewood officer Isabel Sanchez had parked nearby, and other kids flocked to the squad.

Sanchez said another child asked her why she’d wanted to become a police officer.

“I told her when I was little, a lot of police officers would go to my home because my home wasn’t the safest,” said Sanchez, a member of the National Latino Peace Officers Association’s Minnesota chapter. “… Sometimes they were rude to us and so I wanted to become a police officer because I wanted people to feel safe coming up to me because I spoke their language or I looked like them.”

Denson also handed the mic to law enforcement, asking how the event made them feel.

“It makes me feel hopeful,” one answered.

“Hopeful — that we can all be seen in a better light than what’s being presented,” Denson added.

‘VERY HUMBLE ABOUT IT’

Officers and firefighters bought supplies out of their own pockets and some were volunteering while off-duty, said Dawn Selle, Sanneh Foundation vice president of external affairs and community partnerships.

“They’re being very humble about it,” she said, adding that she hopes people will donate to the National Black Police Association’s Minnesota chapter to help them with future outreach. The nonprofit accepts donations at nbpamn.org/donate.

The Sanneh Foundation connected NBPA with United Way and other organizations that provided backpacks and supplies.

Chin said they can’t put on such events without financial support and the places they received it from included various public safety agencies, Target and Hiway Credit Union.

Four barbers donated their time to give free haircuts outside the Conway Rec Center — Terrell Smith, owner of Gentlemen Cuts; Leonard Young, owner of Next Level Barbershop; Jamal Britt, barber at Next Level; and Ronnie Kemp, barber at Final Cuts Sports Barbershop in Roseville.

NEXT: Building a diverse workforce in law enforcement

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