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Improving community relations by focusing on the youth

A nationwide challenge is helping people see officers as public servants, not an invading army — and it starts with the kids

Editor's Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Member Tom Wetzel, a police lieutenant, certified law enforcement executive, SWAT officer, and trainer with a suburban police agency. In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, our Members and Columnists candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members, simply send us an e-mail with your story.

By Tom Wetzel
PoliceOne Member

When addressing the strained relationship between the Cleveland Police Department and the African American community there, Art McKoy, the founder of Black on Black Crime, said, “It’s not better, it’s worse than ever. And it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get better anytime soon.”

These are truly sad words. If even half true, they should cause serious concern to Chief Michael McGrath and Mayor Frank Jackson. This simple summation by Mr. McKoy should press McGrath and Jackson in search of new approaches to help their police officers to better connect with those people they serve — especially those who have historically been victims of institutional racism.

A critical starting point is reaching out to children — the younger the better, as early imprinting can establish a trust that can last a lifetime.

The Special Bond Between Cops and Kids
I think back to my friend Donn Breckenridge who recently retired from our department and had been our juvenile officer for about 15 years. He recognized the vital role that cops have with kids and developed relationships with them that lasted into adulthood. Whether it was teaching children safe behavior, warning them about certain dangers or helping offenders and their families navigate an often overtaxed juvenile justice system that has a limited capacity to put a personal touch on all its cases, Donn made it his mission to support young people.

Donn was particularly fond of a diversion program that allowed kids who got in trouble to avoid the formal system for an in house application of common sense justice. Instead of charges getting filed with the court and the young person getting a juvenile record, kids arrested for certain crimes who demonstrated the right attitude would be able to find alternatives to addressing their wrongdoing. Some “punishments” included washing police cars.

Obviously this approach is not applicable to juveniles whose vicious behavior warrants incarceration and strong control measures within that system.

What Detective Breckenridge — and juvenile officers in general — brings to the table is a mindset that is preventive in nature and steers young people toward the right path. It is an attitude built on trust that needs to extend beyond juvenile detectives and permeate itself within an agency’s entire culture.

Every officer should consider himself or herself a juvenile officer. Mayor Jackson should endorse this approach and expand his police budget so that officers have the resources to reach out to more children.

Coordinating with the school system, he and Chief McGrath can put more cops into schools as resource officers, where they not only protect students but develop friendships with them. Walking the halls and keeping an eye out is one thing, but they should be put into classrooms as well where they can teach them a variety of important topics to help keep them out of trouble.

Whether it is instructing them to look both ways before crossing the street through Safety Town programs, avoiding drug use with D.A.R.E., or alerting them to predators on the Internet through e-Copp, police officers will be recognized by kids (and their parents) as protective partners in keeping them safe.

This relationship can continue into their teens as officers can direct athletic leagues and clubs to give them outlets to have fun. As many young people have the potential to become fine officers themselves, officers can coordinate Explorer programs to help recruit them into a career in law enforcement.

One Officer Can Make All the Difference
Formal assignments are important, but it is often the street officer whose encounters with kids can leave lasting impressions of how a child views a cop. When an officer treats a young person’s parent(s) or the child themselves with respect and professionalism, it can establish confidence that the police appreciate their role as public servants.

Through simple actions (such as waving while on patrol or handing a little kid a badge sticker) and more comprehensive actions (such as helping place an endangered child in an emergency shelter and following up on his care), officers may be less likely to be viewed as members of an occupying army but instead recognized as shareholders in helping keep a neighborhood a safe place to live and work.

Through an intensive approach that targets young people, the Cleveland Police Department may very well succeed in reversing Art McKoy’s assessment that things are not going to get better anytime soon.

It may actually be one goal that both he and the police can agree on.

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