In Portland, police are also poets

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PORTLAND — Some of the city’s police officers walked a new beat last week.

Police recited their own poetry and performed a one-act play before a crowd of more than 50 at City Hall on Thursday, June 6, as part of a conference held in Portland by the New England Foundation for the Arts.

The play, “Radio Calls,” starred Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, Officers Coreena Behnke, Steve Black and Gayle Petty, and former Officer Ray Ruby. “Radio Calls” was written by Marty Pottenger, director of the city’s Arts and Equity Initiative.

The inspiration for the play dates to 2009, when tension between city residents and the police escalated in response to the death of David Okot, a 26-year-old resident from Sudan who was shot by police in an armed confrontation.

To create the play under Pottenger’s direction, students from the city’s high schools teamed up with officers, one on one, and scripted their stories. The process was designed to broaden the perspectives of both the the students and the police.

The department’s use of poetry dates back even further, to 2007.

“It began with a tragedy,” Sauschuck said Thursday. “An officer who accidentally shot himself while at home ended up dying. Come to find out he had enjoyed writing poetry. Marty felt like this was the perfect opportunity to use the arts to deal with tragedy.”

There was some initial resistance, Sauschuck said. Several officers said they would rather fight criminals than read poetry. But they forged ahead with the project, looking to honor the fallen officer and raise funds for charity by creating a poetry-filled calendar.

“It became a healing process for everybody that was involved,” Sauschuck said. When the department lost another officer to a heart attack, police created a second calendar.

“We don’t want to get good at it,” Sauschuck said. “That means we are trying to help a family and honor someone.”

On Thursday, Sauschuck began the performance by reciting “Fish Bowl,” a poem he wrote for the first calendar. He said his friend Betsy Sholl, a former poet laureate of Maine, helped him with with his verse.

“She carried me,” he said.

Petty then read “Last Call,” a poem inspired by her night shifts on Munjoy Hill. Petty, a nearly 20-year veteran of the Police Department, has also combined her work with art in a First Friday exhibit that used archival police photos.

But the headliner of the event was “Radio Calls.”

The play was originally was written for seven voices, but was revised for this performance after two cop-actors dropped out. The reworked script still packs a wallop, and the audience raved at the sharp dialogue and poignant insights into police work.

In a discussion following the performance, cast members credited their work with youth as both inspiration and reward.

Behnke has been an officer for 14 years, with the last four at Portland High School. She also volunteers at the Long Creek Youth Development Center, the juvenile offender facility in South Portland. “I work with kids I put there. It’s exciting to see them transform,” she said.

Black has spent five years of his 13-year police career working in high schools, and said he finds great satisfaction working with youth. Nicknamed “O.B.” (for Officer Black) by students, he said had had just finished a shift but was going to “pull an all-nighter” to participate in the performance.

“Radio Calls” has been performed in the city’s high schools, where it typically gets a reception as enthusiastic as the one last week. Students and adults, it seems, understand the play’s message, which is expressed in one memorable line: “When you roll up to a scene, everyone is yelling and screaming. Just remember there are two sides of every story – somewhere in the middle is the truth.”

Sidebar Elements

Portland Police Officers Coreena Behnke and Steve Black, center, and former Officer Ray Ruby perform “Radio Calls.”