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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
The COPS Office is pleased to feature the January 2017 winner of the Community Policing in Action Photo Contest: The Houston Police Department. The winning photo features Officer Jeremy Lahar chatting with a young girl in a local children’s hospital.
Hospitals can be a scary place for young children, but if Houston Police Officer Jeremy Lahar has anything to do with it, all children in Houston’s Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital will have a stuffed animal to comfort them during their visits. During numerous trips to visit a family member in the hospital, Lahar noticed that the only people that patients ever saw were doctors, nurses, and immediate family. “I thought it would be good for kids to see another face to help take their minds off of things, to put a smile on their faces,” he shared. Lahar conceived the Badges and Bears program and dedicated it to the memory of his sister, Savara Cooley-Thom, who passed away in 2013. With help from area charities, Lahar and other Houston Police Department (HPD) officers visit Memorial Hermann once a month and set up a play area in the forum where children have access to coloring books, stickers, markers, crayons, and trinkets from the HPD. Officers also bring teddy bears and allow the children to pick one to keep. During their visits, officers and children can be seen laughing, smiling, joking, and playing together. The officers also make it a point to visit every child who cannot come to the foyer, taking a cart full of teddy bears for them to choose from.
In the HPD’s winning photo, Lahar is chatting with Maci, a young girl who was not able to leave her bed. “Maci was one of those kids that one of those bubbly personalities that you just connect with,” Lahar said, recalling that day. “Her mom had to step out of her room for a minute and I saw her with her teddy bear on the foot of the bed and she was coloring all by herself. I went in to talk to her. She was just a sweet kid that I had the pleasure of meeting.”
Badges and Bears is just one of many HPD community engagement initiatives. Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, with a population of approximately 2.3 million people speaking more than 90 languages. To connect with such a large and diverse population, its police officers must be both creative and deliberate in their efforts to build meaningful relationships with community members. According to Senior Officer Angela Douglas, the HPD’s social media coordinator, the department’s diversity helps further these efforts. “We are a majority-minority department, meaning that the majority of officers in the department are minorities. We feel that it reflects the city that we are serving.”
The HPD’s 5,000 officers participate in a number of community-wide events that Douglas captures on the Houston Police Community Service blog. The blog highlights the diverse work of the department and includes contact information for the HPD’s community liaisons, along with police station locations, contact information, and hours of operation. Events such as the COMIDA food drive, Coffee with a Cop, and YPAC (Youth Police Advisory Council) meetings are regularly featured on the blog in order to promote the work of the HPD and to encourage community participation.
“These programs are nonthreatening,” shared Douglas. “A lot of times when a person dials 911, it’s not the best day of their life. But if we do something like Coffee with a Cop or a Radio One event, it’s not threatening to the public. We’ve had people ask us why we do certain things and a lot of it is what they’ve seen on TV. We clarify it for them— ‘no, that’s CSI.’” “It’s our job to come up with different ideas and spearhead them,” said Lahar. “We want to bridge the gap between police and the community, and we also want to educate our officers on different community groups.”
To do just that, every HPD cadet must participate in the Cultural Diversity Bus Tour, which is a six-month community tour in which cadets visit various communities, meet with leaders, and learn about the backgrounds of people they may interact with on the streets. This tour helps officers build important relationships before they even graduate from the academy.
When asked how the community responds to HPD’s initiatives, Lahar, who is serving in his fifth year as an officer responded, “We experience more positive feedback than not. A lot of times it’s just a misunderstanding. When they speak to us face to face, they come out with a better understanding. That’s all we want. We want to break down that wall. We want them to know that’s okay to reach out to us.”
The COPS Office congratulates the Houston Police Department for being one of the 12 winners of the COPS Office 2017 Community Policing in Action Photo Contest and for its commitment to community policing.
Written with contributions from Houston Police Department Senior Officer Angela Douglas and Officer Jeremy Lahar. Photo courtesy of the Houston Police Department and taken by Angela Douglas.
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