ORLANDO, Fla. – Orlando police officer Darius Barker was born and raised in Orlando’s historically black community of Parramore.
During his teenage years at Jones High School, he began to lose his way.
“They knew I wasn’t a trouble-maker, I was just hanging around the wrong crowd,” Barker said.
A persistent school resource officer kept encouraging Barker to join the Orlando Police Department’s youth mentoring program, promising high school graduation, a college degree and a good job - if Barker stayed in school and out of trouble.
Eventually, Barker gave in and accepted a mentor.
“I just tried it and I loved it,” Barker said. “I ended up getting some great advice from different people, especially the officers that work in the neighborhood. That was the best thing I could have done as far as being in a mentoring program, because they showed me, hey, there’s a different way out.”
In high school, Barker discovered a talent he never knew he had: playing the drums. He became a drum major in Jones’ prestigious marching band which earned him a full scholarship to Bethune Cookman University.
“A full ride, a band scholarship,” Barker said.
When he graduated from college, he taught physical education at a local school before he decided to go back to his roots. Barker became an Orlando police officer in Parramore, the neighborhood where he grew up.
Remembering the influence and impact his mentor had on his life, Barker also volunteered to be a liaison officer in OPD’s new youth outreach program.
“To be honest man, I wanted to give back,” Barker said.
Many of the youth that Barker regularly encounters are getting into trouble.
“Our youth today, because of everything that’s happening, they say, ’hey, you’re not like me, you’re not from where I’m from,’ but then I can say I am and this is not the only way,” Barker said. “And they actually listen because we kind of had a rapport, we can understand one another because we grew up in the same neighborhood.”
Barker said his role as a liaison is to figure out what led the youth to get into trouble in the first place and then try to address the cause.
“So this program is designed to not take them to JAC (Juvenile Assessment Center) or put them in handcuffs and put them in the back of the car. We try not to make that happen,” Barker said. “Our job is to give them additional resources to help them out. So we may have a kid pulling on door handles, and so our job is to go and find out why is he pulling on door handles. Are they trying to find loose change to get some food because mom is working?”
The outreach program connects youth with the resources they need, Barker said. He recently helped a teenager who was stealing get a part-time job.
“I was like, ’you keep this up man your mom’s there for you at home, she’s going to be looking at you through the glass,” Barker said. “So we got to change what you’re doing, and I’m like ’what do you need help with?’ And he told me what he needed and he said nobody has ever asked him what he needed help with. Nobody. He doesn’t have those resources. He doesn’t have father figures in his life.”
As a liaison, Barker also spends his time mentoring young men just as he was mentored.
OPD partners with Boys 2 Men Mentoring, a Parramore-based program founded in 2016 by Pastor Daniel Ings.
“Looking at our communities and seeing how our boys are going astray, dropping out of school, the lack of parenting in the homes, we recognized that there was a level of support that was definitely needed,” Ings said. “We invite OPD to come in and to share their stories and bring about a level of partnership because we know the world climate and things that have taken place concerning law enforcement with our communities. We want our children to know that law enforcement is there to protect you and partner with you and bring about a different level of yes they can see that, yes they enforce the law but they are really your friends.”
Ings said Boys 2 Men teaches life lessons, offers real talk and connects kids with opportunities.
“Our whole objective is to reduce crime in the neighborhood and reduce youth offenders and so who’s better than the police to come out to share and talk and sit and say I’d rather come talk to you here then have to put your hands behind your back and place you inside of my car,” Ings said.
Ings picks up the young men several afternoons each week and drives them from Parramore to the Orlando Repertory Theater where they gather to hear speakers like Barker.
Last week, Barker told his story of growing up in Parramore and discussed the recent controversial officer-involved shootings around the country.
“That George Floyd incident, I feel like it could have gone a totally different way,” Barker told the teens. “One officer had his knee on his neck the entire time he had him on the ground. Personally I feel like that situation should have been handled so differently.”
Barker encouraged the young men to ask questions. They spent about an hour together.
Boys 2 Men invites the youth outreach liaison officers to the annual graduation ceremony where high school students in the mentoring program who receive their diplomas are celebrated.
You can learn more about Boys 2 Men Mentoring by clicking here.
The Orlando Police Department now has 22 youth outreach liaison officers who’ve volunteered for the position.