'TAPS' program aims to strengthen trust between LEOs and teenagers
"It's important that (students) are able to put a face and a name to a profession and have an understanding of our role and our humanity."
By Ryan Patterson
The Journal Times
RACINE, Wis. — After hearing the idea, Andre Bennett mulled it over for about a week before deciding to move forward.
It was late spring 2022. Bennett, Racine Unified School District director of alternative education, met with a local police officer to discuss a program that aims to improve understanding and connection between police and teenagers.
After researching the program, Bennett determined it was worth the effort.
"We want to be able to build this layer of trust in the community with our students and our officers," Bennett said.
In an attempt to increase trust, the Racine Police Department partnered with the Teen and Police Service Academy and RUSD to host a TAPS Academy program.
The program is funded by a two-year, $66,000 federal grant through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, according to Racine Police Department Sgt. James Pettis of the Community Oriented Policing Unit. Pettis helped apply for the grant and presented the idea to Bennett.
The first part of the two-year grant involves an 11-week program that will start later this month with around 20 high-schoolers at Turning Point Academy, 2333 Northwestern Ave., which is part of Racine Alternative Learning.
Seven RPD officers plan to take part in the program and meet weekly with students for about 90 minutes.
Pettis hopes the students and officers can form connections by regularly interacting.
"That's the biggest aim here for us, is to have that consistent relationship, especially with kids who are challenged by so much inconsistency in their personal lives," Pettis said.
There will be lessons taught by officers but also time for discussions and high schoolers to ask officers questions.
"Students look at the police right now as this entity that's so far from who they are and what they know," Bennett said. "What brings this home is a lot of these police officers who will be engaging in this work are officers from the same part of the community that (students) are from."
Indeed, Pettis said officers sharing personal stories and talking informally in a classroom setting should help build relationships.
"It's one thing on the street, as a policeman, to have that informal banter with our young folks," Pettis said. "It's a completely different thing for us to also be open to the same questions in the classroom as police."
The program is different than the already offered classes for students seeking a job in law enforcement. Pettis hopes it builds a mutual understanding of and respect for the roles students and officers have in the community.
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"Even though these are kids who may not be interested in a law enforcement career, may not have the best perception of police officers, these kids are people, too," Pettis said. "They live in our neighborhoods and are impacted by many of the stresses we face in law enforcement on a day-to-day basis in these same neighborhoods."
The Teen and Police Service Academy was created in Houston, Texas, to close the social distance between teenagers and police officers.
Closing the social distance means humanizing one another and building relationships, Pettis said.
"It's important that (students) are able to put a face and a name to a profession and have an understanding of our role and our humanity," Pettis said.
That is easier said than done, though. Barriers include overcoming negative perceptions of students and officers. Those perceptions could exist because students may have had negative interactions with officers, known friends or family members who received what they viewed as unfair treatment, or seen videos of police misconduct.
Bennett said those perceptions need to be addressed for progress to occur.
"My goal has always been to really reduce that fear that so many of our kids have when it comes to police," Bennett said. "I'm not going to sit here and say that maybe some of it isn't warranted, but I also want kids to be able to understand that the overrepresentation of negativity that we may see police officers having may not be the case."
It is an inexact science to measure the social distance between students and officers. To try to gauge progress, pupils and officers will answer questions before and after the 11-week program on how they perceive one another.
Bennett said students are hesitant about the program, but familiarity with most of the officers, who have previously spent time in schools, should help.
"They're still extremely apprehensive about it because it is the police, but the good thing is they know the officers," Bennett said. "I think it'll take them a while to open up, talk about some of their concerns, but over 11 weeks, I think they'll go away and there will be freer conversation."
For several reasons, Bennett said it is unlikely that the same 20 students who start the program will be there for the full 11 weeks. Some students who started the program could return to their home high school or move out of town. There may be a day when a student is not in the right headspace to discuss a certain topic.
"I don't know what every student has been through with police, and because of that, you never know how some students are going to react to some of the conversation and discussion," Bennett said.
There might also be an emotionally charged local event involving law enforcement. Bennett hopes that if that occurs, officers and students can honestly discuss the event.
Bennett and Pettis hope officers can also learn from and grow with students.
"Our kids are begging to be heard," Bennett said. "The more you allow them to talk, the more you learn, the more you benefit."
More broadly, Bennett and Pettis hope the program plays a role in students expressing themselves in a healthy way.
"That would be the epicenter of the work that we're trying to do," Bennett said. "We want them to be able to come in and say, 'This happened and this occurred.' How's it making you feel? What are your thoughts right now? How can we continue to build up your ability to communicate that effectively?"
Those sustained conversations could build trust between officers and teenagers, which is "something you can't buy," Bennett said.
Success is far from guaranteed, but Bennett and Pettis are excited about the chance to build community relationships.
(c)2022 The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.
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