Los Angeles

People With Special Needs, Police Cadets Connect Through Art

"Muralism is all about connecting special needs people to the community through art."

On a sunny spring day in North Hollywood, two groups of people gathered for the first time to paint with a purpose.

On one side, Los Angeles Police officers. On the other, people with special needs--both sides learning from each other to share a wall and create a stunning work of art--all part of what the artist behind it all calls "muralism."

"Muralism is all about connecting special needs people to the community through art," said Ernie Merlan, a prominent Los Angeles muralist. "Here we're doing a mural where young adults with autism and other special needs are able to work with the police department side-by-side to paint a beautiful mural." 

Merlan is a longtime professional artist, whose work can be seen throughout Southern California and around the world, in public and in film. 

And when he speaks of muralism, Merlan means the goal behind his work these days, like getting groups of people to learn more about other groups they may not fully understand.

"Often times when someone has special needs, rather than being treated differently, they're just ignored altogether. Like, 'Oh, this guy might be crazy or they might be a threat to me.' They're not. They're just folks who think a little bit differently," Merlan said. "I'm trying to bring the community together. People of all around the community. People with special needs. People of different races. People of different backgrounds or careers, like bring the police officers even with the community."

Merlan's latest project is aimed at honoring a special group of police officers, specifically cadets at the LAPD's North Hollywood division. But before a brush ever hit the wall, Merlan spent an afternoon with some of the cadets, many of whom will become officers, to learn more about what the program means to them.

"We do start off at such a young age, by the time we age out of the program, we're practically a second family," said one cadet.

"This is our home away from home," another cadet added. "It teaches us unity. To not let each other down." 

Together, Merlan and the cadets decided to use "Unity" as a theme. But before they finished planning, the artist reminded the future officers about the bigger reason they're painting the mural.

"The real goal in muralism, the whole reason we're doing this, is to give officers in the community as a whole the opportunity to work with side-by-side with young adults or kids with special needs, so that there's a better understanding as a whole," he said. "And a better understanding for the individual with special needs to know they don't need to be scared around officers." 

For a few days, tackling the major mural project was a first for many of the officers and people with special needs. 

"It gives me a chance to do the kind of work that I tend to enjoy. To discover an artistic avenue," said James Hart, who has autism.

"To think that this will still be here, showing future generations, my kids, my grand kids," Cadet Julian Sanabria explains, "it makes me want to try harder, makes me want to do more. So, I think it'll definitely have an impact on not only cadets, but maybe the public too."

It's a mural many will be able to see but few may not realize its significance, how it came together. 

"This is just an opportunity for people to work side-by-side so that everyone can kind of get accepted into the community and learn to work together," Merlan said. "These guys are very capable. Just figuring out where and how they can fit into the community is what we're trying to do." 

And it already seems to be having an impact on officers. 

"Ernie is a good guy. He really is dedicated this craft," said Cadet Sanabria. "Hopefully, it can change lives and inspire people in the near future."

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