Police officers logged more than 5,000 contacts with students in Columbia Heights schools last school year.

The city paid overtime so officers could mentor children as part of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, shoot hoops at weekly open gyms, help with homework and play board games. Officers planned youth sports tournaments and pizza lunches with kids. Some with master’s degrees taught criminal justice courses at the high school for which students got college credit.

The result: Juvenile arrests in the city have been cut by more than half from 243 in 2007 to 106 last year. The suspension rate at the local high school has dropped 130 percent, and kids and police say the relationship has warmed in classrooms and on the street.

On Thursday, the Department of Justice held up this police and school collaboration as a national role model in stark contrast to the climate of mistrust that now dominates police-community relations in many cities across the country.

The U.S. Department of Justice awarded Columbia Heights police and public schools the 2015 L. Anthony Sutin Civic Imagination Award. They’re the only department and district in the country to earn the honor this year.

Ronald L. Davis, director of DOJ community policing, traveled from Washington, D.C., to hand the award to Chief Scott Nadeau and Superintendent Kathy Kelly.

Davis lauded the steep declines in arrests and high school suspensions, saying it’s this type of work that will short-circuit the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Every percentage point that you reduce, you are saving a young person’s life, quite literally. … You should be extremely proud,” he said.

President Obama appointed Davis executive director of the new President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo.

“It’s about building a strong America that invests more in education than prisons,” Davis said. “This is where the rubber meets the road — a small town doing big things.”

Nadeau and Kelly started their collaboration about seven years ago. It happened at a time when many educators were turning away from a heavy police presence and zero-tolerance policies. “To work with the police department, I am sure, was a risk,” Davis said.

Nadeau said he and his officers slowly built that trust with the superintendent, her staff and then students. They were there to mentor, talk and teach.

Columbia Heights is the first Twin Cities police department to participate in Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities. Even Nadeau mentors a little brother.

Davis also heard from students about their experiences with police at school. Neyci Quinteros Sinchi, a student at Highland Elementary, talked about lunch and playtime at the park with her big sister from the police department.

“We say where she came from and where I came from and the things we have in common,” Quinteros Sinchi said.