It can sometimes be easy to view police officers as just cops and forget that they have talents and passions totally separate from law enforcement. But an officer in Maine has used his artistic talent to bring happiness to people in his community, and his department has rewarded that work with public recognition.
Officer Michael Bennis has been a cop for the last 18 years. He started as a patrol officer before becoming a student resource officer at Portland High School in 2017. He also has loved to draw since he was a kid and has become a talented self-taught artist.
Those two worlds combined last year when Officer Bennis used his talents to give a special gift to some of the students at Portland High. Maine had seen an influx of immigrants from West Africa seeking asylum in America, and Bennis wanted the new students who were part of that group to feel welcome.
“That fall, we had some of the young people from the shelters at Portland High,” Bennis told American Police Beat. “I think Portland and Portland High School is one of the most welcoming places on planet Earth — not everyone was super welcoming in Maine, however. I also noticed that some of the kids were shy and scared at first. So, I asked some of the new Americans if I could draw them.”
He got in touch with the immigrant students and asked if they would like him to draw portraits of them. A total of 19 students gave their permission, so he snapped photos of them for reference and got to work. Using charcoal, he meticulously drew detailed portraits for each of the students — on his own time and dime. Each one took 30–40 hours to complete.
“I drew them over the summer and gave them the portraits at school,” Bennis said. “They loved them. I didn’t realize how much they would.”
It was a beautiful gesture that gave these students a wonderful gift they never expected.
“I was so surprised, so surprised when I saw the picture. It looked so good — just like me, I loved it,” Ibrahim Halan said of his portrait.
“When I actually saw the picture, I was amazed,” Awen Deng said. “It was really detailed. It is something special, and it means a lot to me.”
“He doesn’t do it for every student, so it’s like he picked me to do this, and it made me feel good,” Casarra Abeasi said.
Unfortunately, Officer Bennis’ SRO position was eliminated earlier this year, and he was assigned to the Day Class Patrol Division. That was a sad day, but he focuses more on what he experienced while he was there.
“Obviously, I was saddened the program ended. However, I am so thankful I had the amazing opportunity,” he said. “I have never been a part of a community [like that]. The students and staff at PHS invited me in. They wanted me at events. They included me, asked my opinion, sought advice and confided their struggles. They wanted me at the school and told me to be safe if I was working the street.”
The department also didn’t want the special work he’d done with the students to be forgotten.
The Portland P.D. decided to honor Officer Bennis’ gesture by prominently displaying his work at department headquarters. The spread showcases all 19 portraits Bennis drew, as well as the article written in the local newspaper about his work.
“These portraits are off the charts impressive,” said Lieutenant Robert Doherty, who has worked with Bennis for the last 18 years. “All done in charcoal by hand. The detail is so good, you can see glass in the students’ glasses.”
While Bennis doesn’t get the chance to interact with the students of Portland High like he used to, the display at headquarters is a good reminder of the bond that can be forged between law enforcement and the people they serve.