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Afterschool & Law Enforcement: Building relationships and trust

By Erin Murphy

A photo of the Philadelphia Police Athletic League (@phillypal1947) via the Afterschool Alliance on Instagram

The Afterschool Alliance is pleased to present the third installment of the Afterschool & Law Enforcement blog series. Through interviews with police officers and public service officials, this post focuses on how afterschool programs and law enforcement partnerships help build relationships and trust between officers and members of the community. For more information on this topic, check out our previous blogs on motivations for partnerships and on the law enforcement caucus’ briefing on youth mentoring.

Partnerships between law enforcement and afterschool are playing an important role in building relationships and trust between police officers and their communities. For example, at the OK Program in Santa Barbara, CA, most students’ interactions with officers prior to their involvement in the program were through late night police calls in response to family or neighborhood disturbances. This trend allowed distrust to grow between youth and officers in their community—until the OK Program provided a way for beneficial relationships to develop.

The Corona Police Department in California had a similar experience, so the department began to look for a way to reach out to young people and give them more positive interactions with law enforcement. Partnering with afterschool programs was a natural way to do this. These partnerships allow officers to interact with youth in their community on a regular basis and support the work providers are already doing to keep kids safe and supported.

In the fledgling stages of these partnerships, many officers were met with reluctance and distrust. Most children and families in the Santa Ana Police Athletic and Activity League were intimidated by interacting with uniformed law enforcement officers, and Sergeant Ron Edwards of San Diego described the first time students met officers at their program as being similar to a high school dance, “except instead of girls and boys on either side of the room, it was youth and law enforcement.” Yet through these partnerships, officers and youth were able to break down barriers and develop strong bonds.

Here are some stories highlighting how officers worked with programs to build relationships and trust:

  • The Massena, NY Police Department recently launched a program called “True Blue”, where uniformed police officers spend a minimum of 30 minutes each day interacting with youth, such as playing street hockey or basketball. They use daily interaction, because the more time youth and officers spend together the stronger their relationships become.
  • Chief Fowler of the Syracuse, NY Police Department has partnered with and led afterschool programs for over 20 years. In his co-ed basketball program for teens, student teams were coached by officers. The students taught officers about basketball, and officers worked with students on team building and sportsmanship.
  • In the Youth Advisory Group, a program started by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, all meetings are focused on team-building between sheriff deputies and youth. They eat, talk, and complete activities together in each session. They also bring the group together to talk about law enforcement and experiment with role playing, allowing both youth and law enforcement to better understand where the other is coming from.

As officers and youth continue to work together—doing homework, playing sports, or discussing community issues—the trust and understanding between them grows. “We see strong bonds develop between individual officers and the youth they work with,” Chief Fowler said, in reference to participants in the two Syracuse Police Community Centers.

Thanks to a similar program in Burlington, IA, Major Darren Grimshaw has seen a major shift in community-police relations. Young people are stopping to talk and joke around with officers driving by in their cruisers, and then sharing their positive experiences with their friends and family. Parents are reaching out to officers to thank them for their work and build relationships. Creating this new line of communication has led to a change in department philosophy. Officers focus more on increasing positive interactions with the community and have new strategies for building relationships. Experience has taught them that it works.

Stay tuned to the Afterschool Snack to find more stories like these that demonstrate the community benefits that result from afterschool and law enforcement working hand-in-hand.