Too often when a community member sees a uniformed officer, their pulse quickens a bit. Their breath catches as their minds run through a variety of scenarios all based on past experience. Most interactions with the police are unfortunately negative, and this holds true for children as well. Officers aren’t usually called to their homes, day cares or schools for just a friendly visit. Too often, they watch as police have to do their business of controlling situations where others are violating the laws and other people’s rights. But what if these experiences aren’t the only ones children have with officers? What if there were programs where officers interact with children on a more personal level, in a fun and positive way? What if the scenarios imprinted in a child’s memory were good?
Two law enforcement agencies, one on the eastern seaboard and one in the south have found a way to do just that. St. Landry Parish (La.) Sheriff Department and Maryland State Police (MSP) are making a difference and putting a positive spin on the relationship between cops and kids.
Kids that hunt and fish don’t “steal and deal”
In the 1980s a bumper sticker stating, “Kids that hunt and fish don’t steal and deal” inspired the Louisiana State Police to begin a program called Camp Win-a-Friend. Several decades later, two retired state troopers had moved on to other law enforcement positions but wanted to bring that inspiration of children interacting with law enforcement officers in a natural environment to St. Landry Parish, and Kops and Kids Outdoor Adventure Program was born.
“We were able to get a piece of property we could lease within driving distance of Opelousas, Louisiana,” explains Major Richard Williams, St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office, one of the cofounders of Kops and Kids. “We wanted to introduce kids to something other than video games. Many kids have never been exposed to hunting and fishing. It gives them a chance to be involved with something other than inter-city activities.”
Utilizing two properties, one 500 acres and another 100 acres, the sheriff staff and deputies take around ten children ages nine to 13 on an outdoor adventure, including a weekend spent in the compound which includes a bunk house and a common area with cooking facilities. “We target 10- to 13-year-olds since this is the most impressionable group we have,” states Williams. “If they’re younger than that they aren’t mature enough to participate, and,” he jokes, “a teenager already knows everything.”
Any St. Landry Parish citizen, POST certified law enforcement officer or medical or social work professional can make a referral to the program. Most of the participants come from single parent homes in a lower socioeconomic status. “You’d be surprised how many single parent families are out there,” explains Williams. “A lot of the mothers like the opportunity to have the boys involved with a male. I wish we had more facilities to take more kids during the camps.”
Party barges and alligators
The first camp was held in December of 2009 and since that time several hundreds of kids have gone through the Kops and Kids weekend adventure. During the camps, officers act as mentors for the kids, showing them officers are good, positive resources while also teaching useful outdoor skills. Along with traditional outdoor activities, like hunting and fishing, the program offers summer trips on the party barge, trail rides on bikes and ATVs and unusual off-sites. “We’ve been taking them to an alligator farm to pet baby alligators,” Williams explains. To continue the positive law enforcement influence, at the end of the weekend the kids are taken on a tour of the corrections center. “It’s a way of showing them it’s better to do what we just did then to end up here,” says Williams.
Paying the bills
Each member that belongs to the hunting club at the core of Kops and Kids pays annual dues. These dues help with around 5 percent of the funding the program needs to run. The rest of the funding comes from individuals and businesses. “We’ve gotten tremendous support through businesses in St. Landry Parish and the Lafayette area, and individuals have donated money to help us build our complex,” Williams says. “We get about $3,000 a year from dues but that couldn’t touch the amount of stuff that we do.” Although the donations help with upkeep of the facilities, the program’s biggest financial expense is feeding the kids, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has tried to fill the insatiable appetite of an adolescent boy. “Most of our expenses go towards food,” explains Williams. “It’s tough to finance a group of kids to eat for a weekend. We spend $1,000 in groceries.”
Kops and Kids is a 501 (c) 3 so donors get a tax-deduction along with the good feeling that comes from helping out a program that truly incorporates the spirit of community based policing. “We’re called the sportsman’s paradise for a reason,” explains Williams. “We target disadvantaged kids that don’t have access to a father figure. If we can keep one kid out of the system, that’s pretty good.”
The community-based feel doesn’t stop with the camps themselves. When the property isn’t being used for a Kops and Kids Outdoor Adventure, the program makes it available to others who might not otherwise have a place to get together. At the time of his interview, Williams explained 4H was holding a skeet shoot on the property that weekend. “We can’t do a camp every month,” he explained. “We don’t have the counselors, so we open it up to other youth groups.”
Shop with a cop
A little further north, the Maryland State Police (MSP) interact with their local children with the same intent of demonstrating a positive interaction with law enforcement officers by creating a winter holiday experience called “Shop with a Cop.”
“We put together an environment where kids who are not well off and wouldn’t have a holiday like we know it would have something,” explains Lt. Mark McGuire, Golden Ring Barrack. Inspired by a similar program run by Baltimore County Police, MSP’s program sponsors 50 children who represent around 30 to 35 families. Each child is given a $100 gift card and escorted to the store by a trooper who then helps them pick out their holiday goodies.
After shopping, the group heads to Eastern Tech High School where culinary students serve them lunch, the business and law students wrap their presents and art students do face painting...all while the band plays holiday tunes. “We want to make sure kids recognize that we’re the good guys and that we give back with so many things we do,” explains McGuire.
Often children’s views of officers can be less than positive. “Some may have a negative view because we might come to their house when their parents are fighting and we might arrest mom or dad,” states McGuire. “We need to get to them earlier to prevent that negative view. Most kids look up to police officers and firemen and their teachers, all these public service careers...and I think when you break down the demographics you find the kids that are struggling in the community, maybe with a broken home, it seems those are the kids that maybe are on the fence, and we try to get to those kids as quickly as we can.”
Keeping it local
Like Kops and Kids Outdoor Adventure, Shop with a Cop also focuses on children that are local. “Our program focuses on kids within a stone’s throw of our police barracks so it has a local reach,” explains McGuire. Wal-Mart is the local sponsor and is within a mile or two of the police station. “It made sense that they would contribute the money and that we could incorporate their store and money. It was a partnership,” states McGuire.
Sponsored children are in the elementary school range, 7 to 11 years old, but if the sponsored child has an older sibling, they won’t be left out. “I didn’t think it was fair to have an eight-year-old...come home with these gifts when they have an 11-year-old brother at home that doesn’t get anything,” says McGuire.
With Super Storm Sandy’s lingering effects still unknown, families in this impacted area are facing a holiday season while still trying to deal with the devastation of the storm. Because of this, McGuire expects the program’s impact might be even greater this year than in years past.
Stretching the budget
A majority of funding for “Shop with a Cop” comes from Wal-Mart, which provides the $100 gift cards and also the support from Eastern Tech High School, but it doesn’t stop there. “A smaller percentage has come from individual donors who donate $100 to sponsor one child,” explains McGuire. On the day of the event, the troopers themselves supplement a bit. “You can’t get a whole lot of electronics for $100,” says McGuire.
“For example, the kids might have enough to get a handheld game system but it’s not enough to get a game. So the troopers themselves will donate $20 or $30, so they can pick a game.” Wal-Mart patrons also often get in the spirit by contributing toward the program after seeing the kids in the store. “It reaches out to everyone—even to the people in the store that day,” McGuire explains.
Electronics are not the main thing kids are after during their shopping excursion. “Most of the kids buy presents for their families,” states McGuire. They also focus on their needs. “Some of their parents instruct them [to buy things] like tennis shoes or some jeans,” explains McGuire. “After these needed items, they tell them with what’s left you can buy some toys. Some are used to only getting used or hand-me-down toys.”
Shop with a Cop helps meet some of the material needs of the family, but the benefits don’t end there. “It helps them emotionally because their family is in a down time and it gets through to them that police officers are human and are just like everyone else. We can laugh. We can hug. It says to them, you can trust me. Those are things you can’t measure. Those are the intangible things.”
Filling the need
Now in its fourth year, the program has about 50 officers participating. Many donate their time by coming back in to the station, putting on their uniforms and making a difference in the lives of the sponsored children, their families and their community.
But even with all the internal support, Shop with a Cop’s biggest need is not financial but manpower. “Someone could say they wanted to donate $10,000 but I probably couldn’t get enough troopers for the program—we’re not that big.”
Even for a small program, the positive impact on the community is immense. “It provides the spirit of giving, the spirit of the holidays,” McGuire states. The positive response is tremendous as well. “I get hugs the day of the event,” says McGuire. “I get thank you letters and cards. I get letters from the parents thanking us. Sometimes we get letters from other guardians, such as foster parents thanking us.” Like Kops and Kids, Shop with a Cop’s reach in the community is meeting the goal of creating a positive interaction between kids and their local officers—an interaction that will last a lifetime.
Too often children only get to see officers in their protecting role and doing the negative work these proud men and women have sworn to do to keep our communities safe. What the kids don’t often get to see is these heroes laughing and talking, shopping and fishing. The opportunity to be a positive role model is often lost because the only time a child sees officers is when something bad is happing. Thanks to Kops and Kids, Shop with a Cop and similar programs throughout the country, law enforcement agencies are helping solve this.
“I’d like to see more programs like this out there,” states Williams. “If we don’t touch the kids early, we’ll lose them later on. We’ve got to do it when they’re young.”
Michelle Perin is a freelance writer who worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix PD for eight years. For more information visit www.thewritinghand.net.