Can mayoral liaison help bridge Erie’s divides?
ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Michael Outlaw’s self-improvement journey was not sparked by one single epiphany.
There were several.
Outlaw earned two degrees in criminal justice as an adult while taking care of a wife and four children. He theorized the move would help improve his family’s circumstances and give him a better understanding of the law enforcement officers he once viewed as adversaries.
He started attending public meetings about crime, poverty, police-community relations and other important topics years ago to learn more about the root causes of issues heavily affecting many of Erie’s citizens.
Serving jail sentences at 18 and 19, following convictions on burglary and drug charges, hammered home the importance of choices.
And the June 1999 shooting death of his 21-year-old brother — who was gunned down not far from the family’s Woodlawn Avenue home during an argument and fight over suspected vandalism — confirmed for Outlaw that nothing is guaranteed.
“I grew up in a family of five boys and five girls. In the inner city in Erie. We were limited because of our financial status,” said Outlaw, 41, who started work Jan. 2 as community liaison in Erie Mayor Joe Schember’s administration.
“I learned several times that if you hang with the wrong crowd, you get in trouble. Period, point-blank,” Outlaw said. “But I was also fortunate enough, in my life, to learn to make the right decision. To learn how to walk away from lifestyles. Hence I went to college, and got involved in different things and learned different things.”
A former case manager at the Erie County Re-Entry Services and Support Alliance, which helps ex-offenders re-enter society after incarceration, Outlaw has been given a clear directive by Schember: help close the divides between city government, including law enforcement, and Erie’s minority community.
“There are lots of issues, and there have been for generations,” Schember said. “I’m really trying to build good relationships with all of the Erie community, including with groups that have been disenfranchised.”
Outlaw, an East High School graduate, earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in administration of justice from Mercyhurst University. He will concentrate on improving relationships between the minority community and city government, community policing and the Unified Erie anti-violence initiative.
“One of the mayor’s slogans is ‘restore hope,’ and ‘build opportunity,’” Outlaw said. “I definitely see me embodied in all this. I want people to see me in the mayor’s office and know that it’s possible to achieve other positive goals in life, no matter where you come from.”
Schember met Outlaw through his work with Unified Erie, a broad-based, data-driven violence-reduction program created in 2010 that follows a three-pronged approach to reducing violence and problem behaviors: prevention, law enforcement and re-entry.
Outlaw later volunteered with Schember’s campaign.
“I feel a very close connection to Michael,” Schember said. “We both want the same things. We’re interested in helping people, and we both listen more than we talk. We’re both not interested in headlines or personal gain. We’re about being open, honest and listening.”
Schember said he also admires Outlaw’s resolve. “He chose to turn it around,” Schember said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Marshall Piccinini, who helped create Unified Erie, said he first met Outlaw several years ago at a community meeting on violence.
“He sat in the front row, in a suit and tie, and asked incredible questions,” Piccinini said. “It was clear that he knew what he was talking about. He’s been a critical part of improving the conversation about neighborhoods and solving problems in the city.”
Outlaw said it’s important to make sure the community’s communication with the mayor’s office, police and other agencies is open and honest, because that is how relationships improve.
Since starting his $50,000-a-year job, Outlaw has been attending neighborhood watch meetings, visiting neighborhood centers, meeting with clergy members citywide and sparking impromptu conversations in city barber shops.
“I want to know what people are thinking about. The changes they want to see,” Outlaw said.
He has also worked closely on Schember’s plan to have Erie serve as a national pilot program for community policing in an initiative called Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships.
The program involves bringing police and key community groups together to talk about issues facing the city and how police-citizen relationships can improve.
Representatives of the minority community, refugee groups, nonprofits, the arts, religious leaders, business leaders, educators, neighborhood associations and victims of violence will be part of the discussions with police. The city is working with the U.S. Department of Justice on the program.
Outlaw said he is working on a plan to provide new instructional training for minority police and firefighting applicants in the city, with the assistance of Erie’s neighborhood centers.
“Once you set the right platform, you invite the right people to the table,” Outlaw said. “And you don’t want all those people at the table to all be people to feel the same way. Get it out. Talk about how we’ve judged each other without giving the other side an opportunity to explain.
“Once we can set aside our own implicit biases,” Outlaw said, “then we can talk about how we accomplish our goals.”
It took Outlaw years to learn that lesson.
As a teenager, Outlaw was often angry.
He didn’t trust the police.
He found trouble, and eventually a jail sentence, for, he said, “breaking into houses, shooting off guns in the woods, drugs, all kinds of stupid stuff.”
Then, when Outlaw was 23, his brother, Eddie Outlaw, was killed at the intersection of Glendale Avenue and Cameron Road. A 17-year-old defendant, James House, was convicted of first-degree murder in the slaying.
House, now 36, is currently at the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon and scheduled to be resentenced in the Eddie Outlaw homicide on May 3. Erie County’s nine “juvenile lifers” became eligible for resentencing hearings five years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled their mandatory sentences of life without parole for murder were unconstitutional.
“That showed me life is all about decisions, man,” Outlaw said. “It taught me how much a person can survive, taught me you can challenge yourself. And it taught me education is important because it helps you experience the world and change your perspective. Your neighborhood doesn’t have to be your whole experience. You can have more.”
Gary Horton, president of the NAACP’s Erie chapter and an aide to former Mayor Joyce Savocchio in the 1990s, called Outlaw’s hiring “an investment in the community.”
Outlaw “came out of the community and overcame odds to prepare himself for such a time and such a position as this,” Horton said. “People in the community know him, and him being there indicates (Schember’s) approach is more than just lip service.”
Issues affecting the minority community, such as crime, poverty, building wealth, job training and educational access, are at a crucial point in the wake of a November article from 24/7 Wall St., a Delaware-based financial news and opinion company, that ranked Erie as the worst city in the U.S. for black citizens.
“The state of blacks in Erie is a defining moment for this community and this administration,” Horton said. “How they address it is important. But the early signs I see is that this administration wants to address the real issues, and not sweep them under the rug.”
Horton said he knows from experience that Outlaw’s community liaison work requires someone who is “strong, intelligent, and willing to do and say what’s right when the opportunities present themselves. I think he’s the right guy at the right time.”
Tyshun Taylor also respects Outlaw’s fortitude and approach to helping his community.
“I’ve told him, ‘You’re playing chess not checkers out here,’ and that’s a compliment,” said Taylor, 44, a client advocate with Outlaw’s former employer, the Erie County Re-Entry Services and Support Alliance.
Taylor, who spent more than a decade in prison for drug-related charges, credits Outlaw for helping him land what Taylor has called his “dream job” — helping other ex-offenders transition back into society in productive, law-abiding ways.
“What I mean is he’s making strategic moves to better himself,” Taylor said. “Mike is professional. He’s determined. Sometimes people (stereotype) people like me and Mike. He took that new route and ran with it. I’m trying to do the same thing and be focused, authentic and straightforward.”
Outlaw said he feels energized by his opportunity with Schember, and he embraces its responsibility.
“I’m here to be the bridge, help show a different side of life,” Outlaw said.
“So many times, we have this ‘us against them’ mentality,” Outlaw said. “Our community needs to know it’s OK to really have honest conversations about our differences. That it’s OK to be a law-abiding citizen. That we can have a vibrant city. And that you don’t lose any stripes for doing the right thing.”
About Michael Outlaw
?Occupation: Community liaison for Mayor Joe Schember
?Education: Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania; and a master’s degree in administration of justice from Mercyhurst University.
?Experience: Former case manager at the Erie County Re-Entry Services and Support Alliance, which helps ex-offenders re-enter society after incarceration.
?Family: Married with four children.
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com