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U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Community Oriented Policing Services
Muhammad Ali was a role model for many children. But as a child, he was frustrated and lacking in direction. Until he met Joe Martin, a policeman who showed him a more productive way to vent his anger. Officer Martin ran a youth boxing program, and under his tutelage, Ali learned not only the sport for which he became famous, but life lessons that led to his development into a leader.
This kind of interaction has continued to transform the lives of many young people, who have found direction and role models through mentoring relationships with law enforcement personnel. To foster these bonds, police departments and sheriff’s offices throughout the country sponsor youth programs. While all are designed to provide an opportunity for police to mentor future community leaders, they take a variety of forms – sports camps, academic programs, substance abuse classes, fitness courses, arts programs, and more. Two very different programs that demonstrate how similar results can be achieved with different activities are Badges for Baseball and the West Side Story Project.
Badges for Baseball is a sports-based program created by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation with the support of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Badges for Baseball partners with law enforcement agencies, schools, and youth organizations across the country to pair at-risk youth with mentors. These mentors use team sports to teach important life lessons, such as the importance of teamwork, respect, personal responsibility, or communication. Through these teachings, the program motivates kids to build resilience, resist gang pressure, avoid drugs, and cope with other challenges.
Bringing cops and kids together in fun team activities builds trust and mutual understanding. Says Travis Punt, Senior Director of Development for the foundation, “The cops may not wear their uniforms during these activities, and the kids learn to see the person behind the badge, gradually realizing that these cops really do care about them. And it’s a two way street, the cops see the kids differently too. They say things like “I used to think of these guys as just problems on the streets. When you see them out of their element you realize that they are just kids.”
“We’ve already seen long term benefits with a number of kids,” says Punt. “One camper came back to be a volunteer after he aged out of the program and is now studying Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin, and he plans to become a state police officer.”
But though Badges began as a baseball program, the approach can be applied to any sport. Travis points out that the participants are about evenly split between boys and girls, and that there are adaptive sports programs for children with disabilities as well.
The Badges program runs in several hundred communities across the country, and the COPS office has funded grants to Badges programs at ten sites. To help police departments set up a Badges program, the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation offers a variety of free resources, including sports equipment.
Badges mentors are provided with specially designed lesson plans to engage the kids in discussion of topics such as leadership, teamwork, peer influences, and personal responsibility. They also receive a coach’s manual and a detailed curriculum that includes information on physical fitness, nutrition, financial literacy, civics, leadership, bullying and resilience. Coaches can also find youth development strategies, fact sheets, and other materials on the Badges Resource Portal.
While many youth programs are sports based, some kids are better reached and motivated through the arts. Moreover, drama, music and other artistic efforts can provide a way to work out negative feelings in a safe manner, as well as a forum for discussion of important issues.
Among police-youth arts programs are the Promoting Peace Workshops, in which officers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and kids worked on art projects together and produced a mural expressing their sorrow following the fatal shooting of a local officer. In the Washington D.C. area, the Imagination Stage Police and Youth Program brings officers and kids together in workshops that use theater exercises, performance, and improvisational games to build understanding and personal bonds.
A less hands-on but no less effective program is the West Side Story Project (WSSP). Begun in 2007 by Anna Lazlo as a collaborative effort by the Seattle Police Department (SPD), local schools, and Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater, WSSP brought students from underserved areas of the city together with police to discuss the issues dramatized in the musical West Side Story: youth violence, peer pressure, gangs, fitting in, youth-police relations, immigration, and racial and ethnic differences, among others.
Ms. Lazlo says that the discussion groups that accompany viewings of the movie or attendance at the play lead to deep conversations that break down barriers between the kids and cops, who they come to see as people, not just law enforcement authorities. “The most important thing this program does is show that officers care. They are not in your neighborhood just to arrest or harass you.”
Developed for independent use, WSSP can be implemented by a police department in partnership with a recreation center, school, Boys and Girls Club, or other group. It’s also a flexible program which can be replicated in different ways—as a play staged by students with intermittent police-student discussion groups, or as a film which can be shown in one-hour segments followed by discussions over the course of several weeks.
In Seattle, Lazlo created a forum for the kids, officers, and people from the city, in which the play’s song “Gee, Officer Krupke” was sung by actors and the following discussion featured characters from the song represented by a real life police officer, judge, psychologist, and social worker. The adults discussed their professional and personal biases—and the kids in attendance repeated the song’s refrain “We ain't no delinquents, we're misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good.”
WSSP can also be modified to fit different movies or plays. According to Adrian Diaz, Assistant Chief for the SPD, one group used the WSSP in conjunction with a play about a child who was a victim of the Holocaust, and brought a Holocaust survivor into the meeting with the teenagers and police to discuss ethnic hatred and religious bigotry.
Since it began, WSSP has been produced by law enforcement agencies across the country, often in collaboration with Phoenix House, a national drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. A tool kit containing a variety of resource materials was developed by the COPS Office in collaboration with Phoenix House and makes a WSSP program easy to implement.
No matter what kind of youth program a department supports, the important thing is to provide a supportive environment for kids to get to know police officers as people who truly care about them—and for police to help the kids become the best of themselves. As one officer said, “We want to be seen as the good guys.” And in these programs, they are.
Though few will attain the success and fame of Muhammed Ali, many of these children will turn their lives around and go on to become good parents, community members, and citizens—increasing the quality of life and safety for police, the kids, their communities, and us all.
Senior Technical Writer
Police-Youth Dialogues Toolkit - Guide for Improving Relationships and Public Safety through Engagement and Conversation
Teen Action Toolkit: Building a Youth-led Response to Teen Victimization
West Side Story Project Toolkit
Creative Partnerships: Supporting Youth, Building Communities
How to Build Effective Community Partnerships to Prevent Teen Substance Abuse: Implementing PACT360 in Your Community
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