Last summer, I sat on a friend's porch enjoying the late afternoon sun. We watched a local officer pull up and park just a little east of us. The deputy was sitting in his car with his window rolled down finishing up some paperwork when the sound of young voices came through the air. My friend and I stopped talking and listened. One voice rang above the others. The young man's voice hollered, "Pig!" followed by laughter. I leaned forward to see who this disrespectful kid was and almost fell out of my chair when he ran out from behind the tree he had hidden behind to yell at the policeman. It was my nine year old son.
I was horrified. Wasn't this the child who's father and step-father had been police officers? Wasn't his mother a criminologist who specialized in law enforcement and made a living interviewing and writing articles about officers all over the country and Canada? He had spent most of his life around cops, so what was going on? I called my son over and will never forget how wide his eyes got when he saw me. He knew I had heard. I asked him what he was thinking and why he chose to be so disrespectful. His answer, "That cop is always mean. He's not nice like the other one." I wasn't familiar with this new officer but knew the other one my son referred to. She really connected with the kids in town. She took the time to talk to them. I had spent time talking to her as well. She was hoping to retire and volunteer as a school resource officer (SRO) in our district. She had to wait until then because there wasn't any money to fund an SRO. Many of the kids, even the teenagers in our community like and respect her. This situation made me realize how important it is for officers to connect to kids.
Using a Holiday
Many police departments see the value in officers connecting with kids in the community. Popular holidays, like Halloween, offer a great chance for this interaction to take place. Agencies use a variety of methods to break down barriers and enhance relationships not only with the kids but also their parents. Last year, members of the Albuquerque (NM) Juvenile Probation Office hosted an event where they brought in candy and put together bags for several local organizations, including the Ronald McDonald House, Casa Esperanza, New Day Shelter, Amistad Shelter and Joy Junction. Due to funding restraints, these were the only treats many of these organizations received. Recently, in Paris (KY), the local police, U.S. Attorney's Office and FBI put on a children's party with face painting, contests and games. Their intent was to help kids learn more about officers. Another department using Halloween as a way to connect with community kids is the Midland (TX) police department whose community relations unit educates children on the dangers that surround Halloween and how to Trick or Treat safely during their Halloween Safety Program.
Connecting with Teen Citizens
A large variety of agencies offer a Citizens Police Academy. Designed to help bridge the gap between officers and members of the community, these academies allow citizens to become familiar with officer training, equipment and services provided. Also by having citizens interact with officers in a non-adversarial environment (most people only experience on-on-one contact with police when they've been pulled over or are a victim of a crime), each side has the opportunity to get to know the other as an individual. This alone breaks down stereotypes and barriers. It works the same way with teenagers. Many departments, from Palm Beach (FL) to Tucson (AZ) to Arvada (CO) offer a Teen Police Academy. During these academies, teens interact with officers, tour facilities and many get squad car and weapons demonstrations. The five week academy offered by Apple Valley (MN) Police Department hosts discussions including crime scene investigation and use of force. Officers and teens use this time to build relationships an important part of maturing and becoming good citizens.