Youth mentoring program building trust between N.J. officers and kids

The program allows youth to interact with officers to increase cultural awareness and receive guidance on career prep and responsible decision-making

By Deion Johnson

BRICK TOWNSHIP, N.J. — When Brick Township Police Chief James Riccio asked his sergeant to create a youth mentoring program in 2019, he wanted officers to build relationships with kids in urban communities.

Sgt. Jim Kelly jumped at the chance to run the program but delayed starting it after the country went into lockdown in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brick Township Police officers pose with local students participating in the T.E.A.M. program.
Brick Township Police officers pose with local students participating in the T.E.A.M. program. (Photo/Jim Lowney via MCT)

In May 2020, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the ensuing nationwide protests created a sense of urgency to get the program up and running. So, Kelly connected with community leaders and created the T.E.A.M. youth mentorship program, which got underway last year.

“Establishing a positive relationship with the youth has become a priority,” Kelly said. “The goal is to make sure these kids are ready for the real world.”

Riccio said he initiated the program because of concerns around gang violence and calls about guns, knives and loitering in the Maple Leaf community of mostly Black and Hispanic residents. “Not having a great relationship with the residents made it hard” to police the neighborhood, he said. “This program is just one of the great things we did to bring everyone together.”

Community leader Rodney Coursey, who helped develop the program, agreed.

“T.E.A.M. is a small step in the right direction,” he said, “because our civil service partners aim to set a new standard for their colleagues while defying negative stereotypes... through effective youth outreach.”

T.E.A.M., which stands for trust, educate, aspire and mentorship, provides a safe space for youth in 5th through 12th grades to interact with officers in their community, increase cultural awareness, and receive guidance on career preparation and responsible decision-making.

About two dozen kids attend each Thursday during the academic year, socializing and playing card games with officers and peers, eating food and ice cream, and sipping soft drinks. They also discuss events, such as the Halloween extravaganza, Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas party.

Last week, the police department hosted its first T.E.A.M. youth mentorship session for the school year at the township’s Maple Leaf Condominium Complex.

“The guys here love us,” said seventh grader Nymir Goodwin, who has been involved in T.E.A.M. since its inception. “They get mad that I always kick butt in our African American and Latin trivia game,” he added.

Extlander Gonzalez, also a seventh grader, said T.E.A.M. had inspired him to consider a career in law enforcement.

“The officers taking the time out to be here makes me feel like they want to better our Maple Leaf community,” he said. “That’s what I want to do one day.”

Brick Township in Central Jersey near Lakewood is 82% white, 10% Hispanic and 3% Black, according to the 2020 U.S. census.

Its T.E.A.M. Program comes as Black people nationwide have little confidence in police or the criminal justice system.

According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, 84% of Black adults said police generally treat Black people less fairly than whites; 63% of whites said the same. Similarly, 87% of Blacks and 61% of whites said the U.S. criminal justice system treats Black people less fairly.

At the height of the George Floyd protests, Coursey was facilitating demonstrations in Brick.

One day after giving a speech, he said, a member of the local NAACP chapter arranged a meeting between him and Sgt. Kelly, to create an initiative to help youth in this community.

They began collaborating with the Brick Police Department, the Interfaith Community, mayor’s administration, Brick Municipal Alliance Coalition and local activists.

Program organizers later went into schools and churches to sell T.EA.M. and its importance to parents and students.

“When I look at them, I see little versions of me,” Coursey said, referring to T.E.A.M. students. “I can identify with a lot of their experiences. As a young Black kid who moved to a predominately white town, I can definitely relate to some of the struggles they face.”

Parents like Stephanie Miller-Dekle embraced T.E.A.M., too, saying kids in the community need positive engagement with “the guys in blue.”

“Anything to foster a good relationship with officers here only benefits these guys,” Miller-Dekle said of the benefits for the children. “I can’t wait to see how my son grows from being here.”

RELATED: Police-student mentorship program exposes kids to LE careers

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