Children are a natural part of an officer’s environment. When he or she is on patrol, children are all around. They are at the park, on the sidewalks, in the common areas of apartments and on the street corners. Children can be with each other, with their families or by themselves. Many times, unless they are giving an officer a reason for concern such as being too young to be out alone, posturing as if a crime is or is about to occur, or part of an investigation, children are only part of the landscape. This is unfortunate because interacting with children gives officers an opportunity to build trust and relationships, change misperceptions and encourage cooperation. Individual officers become empowered by connecting with their neighborhood’s youth.
Just Stopping to Chat
Stopping to talk with neighborhood children has great value especially in terms of improving the social environment of the neighborhoods we serve. In the training One on One: Connecting Cops & Kids, officers learn how positive interactions with children improve officer safety and help officers achieve their law enforcement goals, Contact with citizens, including children on a routine and information basis can make a difference in the lives of children, the officer and the health and safety of the community. In fact, these interactions are critically important. This is accomplished in three ways.
Children who know you are more likely to trust you. When an officer stops to interact with a child, asking his or her name, the officer is letting the child know that he or she is important, that you are aware of them and that they matter. Many times children live in environments where they feel ignored by the adults around them. Even children who are not being legally neglected are often surrounded by adults who are too busy, too preoccupied with their own lives or just simply do not know how to interact with children. They feel invisible and unimportant. They often do not know who to trust or who they can turn to if they need help. Let children know your name as well. Help them see the man or woman behind the highly visible representative of governmental authority. This helps build a connection to a real person who they can begin to trust and who, in turn can trust them. These interactions let children know that they are important and that we are interested in them as people and not just as suspects. It also helps break down the us vs. them mentality that is pervasive in police work. Developing relationships dissipates some of the unknown and, therefore, threatening aspect of the people we serve.
Educating about our Role
When officers interact with children it gives us an opportunity to correct misperceptions, answer questions and educate children about what our role is in the community. Children learn who and what police are from people around them. If their only experiences are when we are arresting their father or the kid next door and often they hear adults talking about how unfair, abusive and deadly police officers are, they learn to distrust and fear us. We can change these misperceptions by talking with children, showing we are not any of these things. Officers are real people with specific roles. Yes, part of our role is to enforce the laws and protect the public when people commit criminal acts, but another part of law enforcement is to develop relationships in the community guided by values and purposes to improve the neighborhoods we serve. School-age children in particular are very curious about who this person is that drives around in the snazzy car with lights and sirens, wears a uniform and has a belt with so many tools it rivals any that could be picked up in a video game. They want to know why people are arrested and how we can keep them safe. Officers can use informal conversations to reassure them.