Cops and Kids Police Turn into Youth Workers, Hoping to Bridge Gaps

Print More

Like many police officers, Officer Kathy Swilley of Houston knows that when the cops arrive in a neighborhood or home, kids often view them with suspicion.

“That’s a fact,” she says. “In these inner city communities, they always see us when we’re coming to take mom or dad to jail. … Whenever they see a police officer, they think, ‘I haven’t seen my mom or dad since that person came to my house.’ They have a fear of officers.”

Swilley is one of a growing number of police who are trying to change that phenomenon through the creation of police-operated youth programs, many of which turn cops into real youth workers. Among other things, the programs try to head off or overcome the mutual anger and suspicion that often arise between police and youth.

Those feelings arise because many police deal with kids primarily when they’re causing trouble, while many teens see cops approaching them with a presumption of guilt and harassing them.

“For many children, particularly those in impoverished inner cities, the police are seen as representative of a dominant, insensitive culture,” two Yale University researchers wrote for the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (“Child Development Community Policing: Partnership in a Climate of Violence,” Juvenile Justice Bulletin, March 1997). The police “become targets of children’s anger.”

To be sure, surveys of youth about police have shown mixed results: Many kids say they like the police, but many also say they don’t trust them. Data from the nationwide Monitoring the Future surveys show that among high school seniors in the classes of 1989 through 2001, those ranking police and other law enforcement agencies as doing a good or very good job ranged from just 27 to 34 percent. That was among the lowest of all professional fields that were ranked.

Police have long tried to bridge the gap by connecting with youth in situations that don’t involve conflict. Police Athletic Leagues have been around for decades. Individual cops have always taken on the “Office Friendly” role – stopping to shoot baskets with kids, visiting classrooms to talk about drugs or organizing youth activities on the beat. That role was institutionalized in many departments with the spread of community policing in the 1980s.

That was fine as far as it went, but many law enforcement experts felt it didn’t go far enough. Recent efforts have attempted to make the police/youth efforts more sophisticated and long-lasting. They put police in contact with kids several times a week or even every day. They seek to create police/youth relationships that last for years. And they seek to institutionalize the efforts, so they don’t fade away when key people – such as the friendly cop on the beat – move on.

These components are found in some of the programs funded by Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in the U.S. Department of Justice. In Lowell, Mass., for instance, police have started numerous youth initiatives, including career days for girls, art contests and homework help. (COPS funding has decreased sharply under the Bush administration, which has proposed not funding it at all.)

Police went further in New Haven, Conn., teaming with Yale University to create the Child Development-Community Policing program, which teams police and mental health professionals to work with kids who are victims of, witnesses to or perpetrators of violence. (“Police/Youth Worker Partnerships Strive to Mend Rift Between Kids and Cops,” Youth Today, May 1999.)

Several of these more sophisticated efforts share a trait: They focus on advancing youths’ development, not just making kids like cops. Following are some examples of how police are trying to work more with youth.

Literacy

Cops ‘N Kids
800 Villa St.
Racine, WI 53403
(866) 632-1606
www.copsnkids.com

Julia Burney witnessed many disturbing things during her 15 years on the Racine, Wis., police force, but her life was changed by something she didn’t see.

When entering homes to search for guns or drugs, Burney says she consistently noticed something: “Kids are growing up without books.”

She set out to change that.

The oldest of 12 children, Burney says she grew up caring for her siblings and protecting them and her mother when her father got violent after drinking. She says she learned to love Racine police officers, because they’d come to restore peace within her home.

But they couldn’t restore the utilities, which were sometimes cut off for nonpayment of bills, Burney says. She vividly remembers the frigid Wisconsin winters and the darkened house. She was rarely able to read because of the darkness and her parents’ fear of library fines for overdue books.

“For every poor little girl I see, I see myself,” Burney says. “The children I deal with every day – I was one of those children.”
Then one night in 1997, she was called to investigate a burglar alarm at a warehouse. She found thousands of children’s books designated as trash. To her, the trash was inspiration.

She talked to the warehouse owner and her fellow officers, and soon, police cars came to haul away the books. More were donated. In two months, children throughout the community were handed more than 10,000 books from the trunks of patrol cars.

Community groups and individuals kept donating books to keep the “Squad Car Giveaway Program” running. Burney estimates that 250,000 books have been distributed to the youth of Racine (population: 81,827).

She had tapped into a need that police around the country believe they can fill. While police had tried similar efforts in other cities (such as Providence, R.I.), Burney says Cops ‘N Kids programs have subsequently started in at least 36 communities, including Sand Springs, Okla.; Durham, N.C.; Chicago; and Los Angeles.

Burney, now retired from the police force, believes the program not only helps kids, but helps police by changing the way children view them.

“Usually, when kids see cops come into their community, it’s something bad,” she said when she received a $100,000 “Use Your Life Award” from television host Oprah Winfrey in 2000. “Now, they get books.”

They get them from police cars and from a storefront shop that now serves as the Cops ‘N Kids Reading Center. Parents register their children at the center for free. The programs include tutoring, reading aloud by adult volunteers and trips around the neighborhood. There are different curricula for different age groups each day of the week.

“We do not do homework,” says Margaret Drysdale, a retired teacher who designs the curricula. “I try to find fun, interesting, and innovative ways to present the material, so it’s not like when they go to school. It is more enrichment and reinforcement.”

The volunteers at the center include police officers and local businesspeople.

The program’s budget is $105,000 this year, Burney says. Major contributions have come from the Winfrey award, the SC Johnson Fund and some federal funding streams (such as Community Development Block Grants and the Department of Justice’s Weed and Seed program).

Burney is trying to raise $5 million to expand the staff and programs and to open satellite centers.

“When you can’t read, you don’t know anything but what’s around you,” Burney explained in Parenting magazine last March. “When you give children books, you give them a chance to dream.”

Mentoring

Texas Cops & Kids
P.O. Box 2324
Stafford, TX 77497
(281) 564-4724
www.texascopsandkids.org

Officer Kathy Swilley noticed a troubling trend during her 17 years on the Houston police force. “They were getting younger and younger in the backs of our patrol cars,” she says.

As the police department looked into the factors behind the trend, the one that jumped out at Swilley was poverty, especially its impact on education. She saw the cycle of poverty and lack of education running from generation to generation within families.

Three years ago she set out to “break this cycle” in southeast Houston, creating a tutoring, mentoring and community service program for 7- to 17-year-olds. But it took a big step this fall by figuratively adopting an entire first grade class (65 children) in one school.

“We give them a 12-year commitment” of attention and services, says Swilley, CEO of Texas Cops & Kids.

The school, Hartsfield Elementary, is in the Houston Inner City School District, where about 70 percent of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged (defined as qualifying for free lunch or other public assistance). It’s an area where many parents don’t have jobs, and “adults get arrested all the time.” What’s more, “parents are undereducated, so chances are their children will be.”

With an emphasis on early intervention, Swilley’s program hopes to break the “generational curse.”

Initially, the program served youth at several schools through community service projects. Launching the “adoption” program this year was a big step. The program has two primary components.

When classes end at Hartsfield each day, the first-graders gather for Cops & Kids, which runs from 3 to 6 p.m. First comes a healthy meal, provided under contract with Luby’s Cafeteria. Then come homework and other types of academic help, including story time.

The kids also get lessons in social skills, Swilley says. She says that because many of the children didn’t go to preschool, they haven’t fully developed some of the skills expected of them in first grade, such as raising their hands before talking. “When they go to first grade they get in trouble for behavior problems,” Swilley says. “They’ll get up and just go get something off someone else’s desk.”

The after-school component is staffed mostly by volunteers from local colleges, with police dropping in. That’s because many police officers can’t commit themselves to being at the program every day, because they’re often called to put in extra duty at work with no notice. Swilley, who is assigned to municipal court, says that even if she’s scheduled to get off work at 3 p.m., if “I get a call at 2:30, I can’t make it to the school” on time.

In the summer months, children participate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week.

The mentoring portion of the program involves mostly police officers (25 at the moment). Each adult mentors two children. “They call the kids every other day,” Swilley says. “They go to the schools twice a month to have lunch with the kids, see how they’re doing.” They take the children on small trips around town, such as to grocery stores and movies. The plan is for each youth to have the same mentor through high school.

The program also provides parenting classes and takes parents to see incarcerated youth, in an effort to drive home the point that their own children are at risk of the same fate, Swilley says.

Her plan is to adopt a new first grade class each year. That will continually require significant expansion of the volunteer staff.

And more money. This year’s budget is $15,000. So far, Swilley has funded most of the program herself. “I have no family. I have a husband and a dog,” she says. “I work. I invest my money.”

With the program expanding, she says, “I realize we’re going to have to do something else.” That means more fund-raisers (such as a hot dog sale at a blues festival last month) and applying for grants.

Empowering Girls

Police Athletic League
of Philadelphia
2524 E. Clearfield St.
Philadelphia, PA 19134
(215) 291-9000
www.phillypal.com

Lieutenant Susan Slawson, commanding officer of the Police Athletic League (PAL) of Philadelphia, noticed something disturbing when she visited the PAL centers in 1997. “She noticed that the girls weren’t active,” says educational coordinator Tamara Pinckney.

That soon changed with the creation of a program designed specifically for girls.

Today Pinckney oversees the Positive Images curriculum: a 12-week series of self-esteem building workshops and career skills programs to help girls (ages 11 to 17) improve their self-images, relationships, health habits and finances.

“It gives [girls] a voice, and positive hands-on activities and experiences,” Pinckney says.

The program operates in 14 of the 24 centers run by the 54-year-old PAL of Philadelphia, which provides athletic, educational and cultural activities for 28,000 youth. Some 300 girls are enrolled in Positive Images.

The curriculum consists of workshops on building self-esteem while improving behavior and communication skills. The sessions focus on issues such as self-defense, substance abuse, etiquette (at dinner, for instance), being prepared for emergencies, and recognizing and dealing with one’s own feelings. The girls also participate in community service projects, educational enrichment and career awareness projects.

The centers invite female role models from the Philadelphia area, such as local news anchor Pat Ciarrocci of KYW-TV, to speak with the girls.

While every center has the same curriculum, Pinckney says, the coordinators at the centers vary their approaches. “They try to focus on what their girls need,” she says.

The fact that the centers are scattered around the city is crucial to the program’s success, Pinckney says. “It is important that the centers are readily accessible to them in their neighborhoods,” she says. “They have the opportunity to engage in activities without being uncomfortable with their surroundings.”

The centers make sure they showcase the girls’ accomplishments and growth. For example, the Cozen PAL center has hosted a fashion and talent show for the past two years.

PAL of Philadelphia is trying to spread Positive Images nationwide by exchanging information with PALs around the country.

The program costs about $5,000 a year to operate at each center, Pinckney says. Among the largest of the individual, corporate and foundation contributors to Positive Images are the Lincoln Financial Group Foundation, the local WB television network affiliate (WPHL) and the Verizon Foundation.

Trading Cards

Ocean Township
Police Department
50 Railroad Ave.
Waretown, NJ 08758
(609) 693-4007
www.oceantwp.org/police

Trading cards have helped to make childhood idols out of baseball players, from the age of Babe Ruth to the reign of Barry Bonds. Now, scores of police departments are hoping that trading cards can help boost their images with kids as well.

The idea seems both inspired and somehow superficial: Can handing out “Cop Cards” make a difference?

The police in Ocean Township (population: 7,000) are among the latest to believe that it can; the department issued its first set of cards last May. As an incentive, the department announced that the first five kids who collected a full set of cards would each win a new bicycle.

The cards were issued on a Thursday. By Monday, the first bike was claimed.

It’s doubtful that kids would have flocked to local businesses and patrol officers to pick up the cards without the promise of free wheels. But to Patrolman Matthew Azzarone, who organized the project, the mission is accomplished.

With the cards, he says, “The officer isn’t just that guy just driving around all the time.” He believes the cards open the door for communication, because police are not just seen as hostile invaders in the community.

They are seen instead smiling in front of their patrol cars, on their patrol bikes or with a dog from the K-9 unit. The cards include short biographies and words of advice, such as “Respect yourself if you want others to respect you” and “Choose to be safe and drug-free.” They have been handed out in such disparate places as Waterloo, Iowa; Fresno, Calif.; and Westbrook, Maine.

It’s hard to imagine a study that could measure the effect of police trading cards, and indeed none can be found. Azzarone says he needs no further evidence than the look of recognition that officers receive from youth. Since the trading cards’ release, he says, children recognize officers on patrol, ask for their autographs and appear less tense around police.

Most departments that use the cards rely to some degree on local businesses to fund them. In Ocean Township, the police department says the cards are paid for with funds raised by asset seizures in drug convictions. In some communities, cards are sponsored through cross-promotions for the police and businesses.

For instance, McDonald’s sprang for 1 million “McSafety” cards for the Michigan State Police. The cards feature Ronald McDonald posing with police officers, but aim more at education than making friends. The backs of the cards offer safety tips, such as, “Never let anyone touch you who scares, hurts, or makes you feel uncomfortable.”

Michigan State Trooper Larry Cannon, in an interview with the Greenville, Mich.-based Daily News, said the cards help to bring up topics like criminal sexual conduct in an age-appropriate way.

Most police trading cards are produced by Pro-Image, an Iowa-based company that prints specialty trading and business cards (www.proimagecards.com). The first set of 1,000 costs $100; the price drops to $40 for every thousand thereafter.