One conversation and project at a time, Ayiteh Sowah is building a bridge between law enforcement and the people they protect.
Since 2015, Bridge the Gap
has worked to build positive relationships between law enforcement agencies and the Mid-Michigan communities of Bay, Saginaw, and Midland counties.
Sports, scholarships, and special events all are the bricks that form the bridge.
“We do a lot of different events to accomplish that,” Sowah says.
The local effort began in 2015 after Bay City Police Officer Brandon Murphy was shot in the line of duty by a 17-year-old white teen. Murphy is back on the job, but Sowah says the shooting highlighted a problem that not everyone could see before.
“There’s issues all around,” Sowah says. “We don’t see it, we don’t always hear about it. Sometimes we hear about things in a bigger city, but it is everywhere.”
Sowah is quick to point out that local law enforcement agencies have many good relationships with their communities. But all relationships require work.
Bay City Public Safety Director Michael Cecchini interacts with students during a Bridge the Gap event.
“I’m not saying there are not good relationships in Bay City,” Sowah says. “I know things can be better because Chief (Michael J.) Cecchini is onboard with us. That doesn’t mean that his department isn’t doing a good job. It just means relations are not where they should be. There’s a lot of work to do.”
Much of the work looks like fun. Sowah says Bridge the Gap hosts sporting events that pair officers with teens.
For example, an annual basketball tournament puts teens, officers, pastors, and the media on teams. They don’t practice beforehand. Instead, they rely on communication and teamwork to score points.
“It showed that you can not know each other, be from different walks of life, and still get along and have a great time and be successful doing it,” Sowah says
Another event puts officers and teens in ice skates.
“You know, taking cops and kids who both don’t know how to skate and putting them in there together, they both fall and they have to help each other,” Sowah says.
Another effort that Back the Badge leads seeks to increase diversity among area police officers. “There are few women on the forces in the area. Unfortunately, there aren’t many men of color either.”
To change that, Back the Badge raised the $8,000 tuition to send nine people to the Delta College Police Academy
this year. While he won’t release names because of privacy issues, he did say that four of those students have pledged to serve in Bay County after graduation.
Participants must be from this area and must commit to serve here for at least three years after graduation. The scholarship doesn’t list any racial, ethnic, or gender qualifications, but Sowah says he’s impressed with the diversity of the candidates.
“We have a nice, big, diverse group of men and women we’ve been sending to the academy,” Sowah says.
Back the Badge also helps the students find employment while they’re at the Academy, Sowah says.
In addition to bolstering diversity, Sowah points out that the program aids the local economy. The scholarship money stays in the region through Delta College. Employment during and after the Academy is in the region.
“Our ultimate goal is to make the Great Lakes Bay Region a great place to live, work, and play,” he says.
More information is available on the organization's Facebook page.