Aware that police-community relations are under strain in cities across the country, the Brooklyn Park Police Department is working to win the hearts and minds of some of its youngest residents.
The department has launched Kidstop, an outreach program for kids ages 4 to 12. Officers and the department’s community liaison will visit schools regularly to discuss police work and chat with children. Kidstop will supplement other youth outreach programs, including school resource officers in middle and high schools, an annual fishing outing and kickball tournament.
“There is a national climate of fear instilled in many people. We felt it necessary to get involved earlier,” said Joint Community Policing Partnership Community Liaison Paula Van Avery. “What we are really trying to do is promote trust and have them realize we are a lifelong resource.”
Some of the mistrust making national and local news has trickled down to children, said detective Shawn Fricke. The department has reached out to adult civic and community groups, but children “have a ton of questions for police, too,” Fricke said.
Regular, friendly exchanges with officers at school can help ease confusion and fear.
“Small things can go a long way,” said Fricke as he and other officers handed out “cop”sicles and chatted with kids in the Brooklyn Park Recreation Summer Camp Culture Fair last week.
The goal is to give children the opportunity to form impressions about officers in their neighborhoods based on personal interactions rather than television and news reports.
In the past year, the news reports have been critical. Protesters have taken to the streets in Baltimore, Cleveland, New York, Charlotte, N.C., and the St. Louis suburbs to protest the deaths of civilians during police encounters. Black Lives Matter organizers have marched in Minneapolis and St. Paul demanding better police accountability. Last week, Brooklyn Park agreed to pay $2.8 million to a man shot and wounded during a police encounter last year.
Fricke and Van Avery said children are hearing the national dialogue about police.
Kidstop is already working with Osseo Area Schools and summer programs with plans to connect with the other districts serving the city. At a kickoff event in July, officers met with groups of children and discussed the tools on officers’ police belts. They include flashlights, batons and handcuffs.
Children often ask if an officer has had to fire a weapon in the line of duty.
“The officers are humble and say, “Fortunately, I have never been in that position,” Van Avery said.
Officers tell the children the tools they use the most often are their pocket-size notebooks and paper to jot down information to write their reports.
“It is important for the police officers in our community to get to know our kids and the kids to get to know them in a more relaxed environment,” said Brooklyn Park Recreation Supervisor Jen Gillard.
It’s also a chance for officers to better understand the people they serve and to find ways to improve their approach.
“They are able to see the children’s response and reaction. Sometimes it is fear, and they’re sometimes able to make themselves more personable,” Van Avery said.