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The City Journals

Saving the world, one person at a time: Riverton police officer’s super power is community

Jan 06, 2020 01:45PM ● By Jet Burnham

Officer Michael Ashley hangs out at local skate parks to build relationships with kids. (Photo courtesy of Mike Ashley.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

When Riverton police officer Michael Ashley leaves for work each day, his wife asks if he’s going to save the world.

“No,” he answers. “I’m just going to save one person.”

Ashley, a school resource officer at Oquirrh Hills Middle School, taps into a variety of powerful resources to save the students he works with.

Power of connection

Ashley, or Officer Ash as the kids call him, strives to connect with each student, to earn their trust and to encourage them to make good choices.

“I want kids to feel like they could come talk to me,” said Ashley, who gets involved in classrooms and school activities as much as he can.

“He's not just the cop that goes and holds up the wall,” said OHMS assistant principal Audrey Fish. “He's outside with them, visiting with them, laughing with them, getting to know them. He’s going and meeting kids in every class.”

Ashley keeps close tabs on students even outside of school. He frequently spends time at the local skate park, earning the trust of the kids who hang out there.

“I just don't want to be the school cop that's just in the hallways,” Ashley said. “I want to be that officer that's out on the street, with the kids at the skate park, with the businesses, and teaching families about understanding their kids and all the latest trends.”

Ashley is immersed in community events. He loves to help with bike safety rodeos and crime watch meetings. He is eager to take selfies with residents on the street, hand out stickers to kids and support lemonade stands.

“He’s constantly out in the community where kids are,” Fish said. “I think that he knows that they know that he's going to be swinging by in a patrol car, so they're probably going to be following the rules.”

Power of prevention

“He’s all about prevention,” Fish said. “That lens of prevention and being visible—that’s that's what has brought a lot of the power to his message and to his presence.” 

She said he reaches out to students who are getting into trouble to prevent bigger problems from developing.

“He's very good at talking through consequences and choices with kids and also trying to empower them to make better choices,” Fish said. “He puts his neck out there for the benefit of the kids, knowing that they know that he's going to hold them accountable for that high expectation.”

Power of a punch

When students get into fights at school, Ashley introduces the teen to local programs that teach self-discipline such as the boxing program at Gene Fullmer Rec Center in West Jordan and the martial arts classes at First Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Riverton.

A boxing program helped Ashley learn respect, honor, pride, confidence and nonviolent resolutions during his own youth.

Ashley reached out to First BJJ Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when it opened in Riverton this October. Owner Chad Golay said Ashley immediately started referring families to the program.

“Anytime he sees someone in the community—a teenager or family—that would be interested or if he recognizes that would benefit them, he will definitely communicate what we offer to them,” Golay said.

Over the summer, Officer Michael Ashley made personal contact with every business in Riverton. (Photo courtesy of Mike Ashley.)

Power of support 

Golay appreciates the support from Ashley, who makes it a point to contact every business owner in Riverton.

“He has been more than helpful,” Golay said. “He's gone out of his way to make himself available for us.”

Ashley has previously worked as an SRO at Riverton High School, a community-oriented police officer and a drug court detective working with addicts and their families. Though his current assignment is school resource officer, Ashley is still a community officer.

“The three things that you need to know in a community are the kids, the parents and the businesses,” Ashley said. “If you know all three of those, you have a successful community.” 

Riverton Chief of Police Don Hutson said community-oriented policing is the culture of the Riverton Police Department. Every officer, no matter where they serve, is encouraged to attend community events, be involved in neighborhoods and do business outreach.

Hutson said Ashley is an exemplary officer.

“Mike Ashley was kind of the poster child for the type of officer I want,” Huston said. He's such a motivated guy and loves to interact with people. We would be crazy not to bring somebody of his caliber on board to help with the transition to our new police department. He literally made contact with almost every business in Riverton over the summer and introduced himself and introduced our new department.”

Hutson said, like most officers, Ashley wants to make a difference. 

“He feels like he can really make a difference when he connects with the youth,” Hutson said. “He also takes it to the next level and connects with their families. He’s trying to solve society's ills one youth at a time.”

Power of creativity

Ashley appreciates that Hutson supports him and gives him the freedom to use his imagination to educate youth. Ashley employs creative activities to teach students to be drug-free in the D.A.R.E. program at local elementary schools. Alex Anderson, a teacher at Rosamond Elementary, said Ashley had students practice scenarios of how they could say no to drugs and alcohol.

“Officer Ashley is very kind and developed lasting relationships with the students,” she said.

At OHMS, Ashley meets with each second period class to teach the Keeping it Real program. He held a contest for students to create a poster expressing the program values of pride, honor and respect. Through his community contacts at nearby Marco Pizza and Crumbl Cookie, he arranged a party for the winners. OHMS hall monitor Vicki Wartman volunteered to laminate and display the posters at events supported by the Riverton Arts Council, of which she is a member. 

Ashley invited art students from Riverton High School to judge the posters. The high school dance company also performed for his D.A.R.E. program at Rosamond Elementary when he challenged the elementary students to make up a dance about what they’ve learned from the program.

“I always like to keep the high school kids in with the elementary and middle school so that they can see leaders from the school just above them,” Ashley said.

Power of personal stories

Ashley invites also community members to help him save lives. He asks recovering addicts and ex-convicts he meets in the community to share their stories of tragedy and success with students who are making poor choices. He also invites parents who’ve lost children to suicide or drugs to speak to youth in schools and churches. Ashley said it is more powerful when a mother shares the emotional story of losing a child to suicide or drugs, than if he talks about the consequences of drug use.

“I think we lift that burden off of them where they feel like they're not being a snitch,” Ashley said. “We have the kids lining up after wanting to tell about their suicidal friend or their friend that's doing drugs.”

Power of family

When Ashley reaches out to help a troubled student, he supports the whole family.

“If I have a problem with the kid at school, I want to be in their home, I want to see why,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it's a bad home. I just want to see the strengths and some of the things that they're lacking that I could hopefully help them with.”

Ashley, who is the father of seven children, educates parents about the culture and popular trends affecting their teens’ behaviors with a program called Parents in the Hood. He works individually with overwhelmed parents to develop a parenting plan that will help their child have accountability.

Power of goodness

Ashley said it is a group effort of families, school staff and community members that help him change lives. As a youth growing up in a troubled California neighborhood, Ashley benefited from the kindness of others when he didn’t have basic needs or good role models.

“I had great friends and their dads took me under their wing and treated me like their son,” he said. He said he was helped by many people he never thanked. He strives to pay them back by paying it forward to others in need. He wasn’t able to help his own family members who got caught up in gangs and drugs so he works to help others if he can.

“I used to want to be the tough guy and to arrest everybody,” Ashley said. “I'm just not like that anymore. I just want people to change if they can.”