Perhaps it has always been the case, but current youth tend to be reticent to engage police in a positive manner. Whether that is due to current television or film or social trends such as the “don’t snitch” movement is debatable but, ultimately, not relevant. Regardless of the reason, law enforcement is still faced with the challenge of creating a communications paradigm with youth that is not negative. One program I’ve found to be surprisingly effective is something I’ve titled “Greet a Kid.” This very basic, rudimentary program involves minimal investment, but provides a great return.
Greet a Kid
Step 1: Buy a box of 1,000 suckers from one of the many companies that sell them
Step 2: Have each imprinted with the department’s name and motto or catch phrase reflecting the department’s mission (i.e., “We Serve and Protect”). Most suppliers will be able to print a minimum of two lines, and often three. If you have a have a large population of immigrants in your jurisdiction, consider printing again in that language
Step 3: Give a small box of suckers to each officer with instructions to carry them in their vehicle and give them out to any kid they see. With small kids in the company of a parent, I am always careful to ask the parent first if the children can have sugar. If the answer is, “Yes,” then I hand the sucker to the kids along with an extra one for them to give their parent.
The change I have seen with this program has been dramatic. I’ve seen kids’ reactions to being approached by the Police go from, “Oh, [bleep]!,” to actually seeking us out and asking for the suckers. With this program, the police officer is no longer someone to be feared. Now, there is a good reason to simply walk up and talk to a cop or deputy.
A second simple but productive program is something I’ve called “Caught Being Good.” This program starts with identifying a specific behavior you want community youth to emulate.
Caught Being Good
Step 1: Identify what behavior(s) you want to see in your own jurisdiction:
• Wearing bike helmets
• Observing cycling rules of the road
• Skateboarding in designated and appropriate areas at appropriate times of day
• Crossing in crosswalks instead of jay-walking, having a dog on a leash, etc.
Step 2: Locate or acquire a means of positive reinforcement to reward the desired behaviors. In addition to the aforementioned suckers, I’ve reached out to local fast-food establishments to provide tickets or coupons for free ice cream cones or small personal pizzas. The types of rewards can run the gamut with your local businesses: ½ price theater tickets or free popcorn, free arcade tokens, free bowling shoes with a game purchased, etc. The key is to reach out to any business a kid wants to go to or has a product kids want.
Step 3: When you see a kid doing something right, make contact and tell them so, congratulate them, and give them the appropriate reward. If community attitudes permit, turn on your blue lights as you award the certificate.
Just watch what happens. I bet that local establishments will enjoy increased patronage and Officers will be seen as approachable and friendly, as opposed to fear-inducing authority figures to avoid. In my own personal experience, I’ve had kids approach me to return wallets, bikes or merely ask questions of what they should do in a particular situation. They did this because they knew me and we had already had previous positive interactions. Kids want to be part of the solution but often do not know how — or get the chance — to see how they can.