Any police department can deploy these successful youth outreach programs

None of these initiatives cost a lot of money (if any) or demand a lot of departmental resources, but their impact on community relations is profound


Building better relationships between police and youth is a top priority for departments nationwide, especially those serving multi-racial/multi-ethnic communities. The question is, how to do it? The Richmond Heights Police Department (RHPD) in Ohio has developed a series of youth outreach programs that are achieving this goal, all of which can be easily replicated and deployed in other jurisdictions.

Since 2019, initiatives such as Cop Scouts, Teen Ambassador Club, Traffic Stops training, Shop with a Cop and various school-based programs are building positive one-to-one relationships between RHPD officers and local youth in that city, without requiring a major outlay of funds or physical resources.

These relationships are constructive, healthy responses to the trust issues that many citizens are experiencing with their local police. They are also a means of improving interactions between these two groups going forward.

Since 2019, initiatives such as Cop Scouts, Teen Ambassador Club, Traffic Stops training, Shop with a Cop and various school-based programs are building positive one-to-one relationships between RHPD officers and local youth.
Since 2019, initiatives such as Cop Scouts, Teen Ambassador Club, Traffic Stops training, Shop with a Cop and various school-based programs are building positive one-to-one relationships between RHPD officers and local youth. (Photo/RHPD)

“Youth outreach is especially important today,” said RHPD Chief Thomas (Tom) Wetzel, who launched the programs after assuming command three years ago. “It can build sturdy bridges of trust with young people and their families and develop friendly relationships that can last for generations. These young people will grow up and one day sit on juries and vote on police levies. These positive experiences especially in their imprinting years can help them trust, value, appreciate, and have confidence in their public servant guardians regardless of what they would hear otherwise.

“Another big reason for these programs was to help develop positive relationships with our school staff and the students there,” Wetzel said. “Some of our programs are collaborative efforts with them, such as a town hall meeting we had with students. It was an open forum that allowed them to ask any question they wanted of us. It was a wonderful dialogue and allowed them to pick our brains on anything that concerned them.”

That’s not all: Building local youth’s faith in policing makes them more likely to take on this career when they grow up, at a time when police departments are having a hard time replacing retirees.

“We are nearly at a crisis point for police recruitment,” Chief Wetzel said. “Youth outreach can pay dividends for both the short term and long term. In the short term, families and friends of kids see the commitment of their police departments toward young people and may encourage relatives or friends who are of age to consider a career in law enforcement. In the long term, these young people will grow up and want to be cops based on their interactions with them when they were young.”

A suite of youth outreach programs 

Here are some of the youth outreach programs being offered by the Richmond Heights Police Department today, all of which can be run by other departments in their own communities.

Cop Scouts program: This is the RHPD’s signature unique program that is a blend of Cub Scouts/Brownies and a police explorer program. Aimed at kids aged 8 to 14 years old, the Cop Scouts do different activities and learn life skills by interacting with police officers. The program fosters friendships between officers and fellow scouts.

Cop Scouts program participants meet RHPD's mounted patrol officers.
Cop Scouts program participants meet RHPD's mounted patrol officers. (Photo/RHPD)

Teen Ambassador Club: This RHPD program is aimed at secondary school-age students. It is an after-school program where students work with police on various activities. In addition to getting to know officers and their duties on a personal level, members can act as “Department Ambassadors” within the community.

Traffic Stops training program: This program teaches teens the most appropriate and safe ways to interact with police during traffic stops. Not only does this reduce the risk of negative interactions during actual stops, but it gives youth and the RHPD a common understanding and respect if they do encounter each other during a traffic stop.

Shop with a Cop: The name says it all – shared time between youth and police in a non-threatening, enjoyable environment.

Regular reading visits to students: “We have officers and special guests routinely read stories to students in our elementary school,” Chief Wetzel said.

School art competition: This is an annual program where artwork produced by students at Richmond Heights High School is exhibited in the RHPD board room and winners are selected by officer votes. The winners are then put on display at the station for one year.

Art competition winners.
Art competition winners. (Photo/RHPD)

We Tip our Badge to You for Academic Excellence: “Every two weeks local schools will nominate an elementary or secondary school student who did something good academically,” said Chief Wetzel. “We then provide the student with a small gift that was donated from a local business, such as a McDonald’s gift card. I will interview the student on what they want to be when they grow up, their favorite food or color, and what they like to do. Then we take a photo with the student and post it on Facebook so our community can learn about the special kids that go to our schools. We also put the child’s name on our city’s electronic marquee board for four days so people will see their names in ‘lights’.”

Chief Tom Wetzel is pictured with a "Tip your badge" recipient. 
Chief Tom Wetzel is pictured with a "Tip your badge" recipient.  (Photo/RHPD)

Real results

None of these youth outreach programs cost a lot of money (if any) or demand a lot of departmental resources. But the impact they can have on improving community relations today and into the future is profound.

“They work: We can attest to that,” Chief Wetzel said. “They are easy for officers to implement and they are low cost with the biggest commitment just being some ‘sweat equity’.”

Richmond Heights parents whose children are involved in the RHPD’s youth outreach programs agree with the chief. One father wrote to the RHPD lauding the officers involved as serving as positive parental role models “teaching the basic fundamentals of sharing, being a team, (and fulfilling) a mission-driven to collective efforts not caring about race, gender or financial stability.” A mother added that, with respect to the Cop Scouts program, “What stood out was the fact that boys and girls were allowed to be involved, as well as the parents.”

RHPD officers demonstrate flag-folding to Cop Scout participants.
RHPD officers demonstrate flag-folding to Cop Scout participants. (Photo/RHPD)

A tangible, doable way to rebuild community relations

Chief Thomas Wetzel is happy to talk about the RHPD’s youth outreach programs, and the positive results they are bringing to Richmond Heights. But the real message he wants to get across is that the programs being run by the RHPD can be run by any police department big or small in any jurisdiction on the planet. Their positive impact on youth/police relations, both in the short- and long-term, is within every PD’s reach.

“Absolutely and that is the goal,” he declared. “We believe every police department in the country should make youth outreach a priority. These programs we developed can help them achieve that.”

For more information, email Police.chief@richmondheightsohio.org.

NEXT: How to establish community TRUST

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