Terence Staton used to think cops’ only job was to lock up people like his cousin in jail.
Now the 13-year old wants to become a police officer himself - - that is, if he doesn’t make it into the NBA.
That sea change of a career aspiration resulted from a two-week intensive up-close-and personal program between cops and kids in the Westville Manor and the Brookside housing projects in the West Rock neighborhood.
Called YPI, or Youth & Police Initiative, the program brings the beat officers and district managers in tough neighborhoods together with boys aged 12 to 17. The aim is “to get beyond the uniform,” to know each other as people, to share biographies, common interests like sports, and aspirations, along with pizza for five sessions, culminating in a sixth celebratory dinner.
Last summer Chief Esserman experimented with the program, which is run by the North American Family Institute, to Eastview Terrace. Esserman had used the program when he served as chief of Providence, R.I. (Click here for an article on how it went at Eastview Terrace and more detail on the curriculum, which involves the kids and their families signing a contract to enroll and receiving a modest stipend for attendance.)
In addition to breaking the ice between kids and cops, activities also focus on simple but indispensable life skills like looking someone in the eye, shaking hands properly, and seeing the world from a perspective other than your own.
Since the Eastview Terrace experiment, the department has brought YPI to the Farnam Court Townhouses and most recently at McConaughy Terrace and Valley Townhouses.Each two week sessions costs $10,000, Esserman said. The housing authority paid for the previous three installments of YPI. The session Terence attended Monday was paid for out of the police department’s own discretionary funds from the federal Department of Justice. Some departments use DOJ discretionary money “for equipment. We use it for kids,” said the chief, who attended Monday’s session, where he shook the hands of the ten participating kids. He said he’d like to find the money to take the program citywide.
The kids Monday evening made formal presentations about their aspirations; about something good they had done as well as something bad, for family and for community; and about the consequences.
Prior to his joining the YPI group, Terence said, he had this view of the cops: “They were up to trouble. They were just looking to put someone in jail. My cousin didn’t do nothing, and he was in jail.”
After the kids finished discussing bad stuff they had done—cussing out a teacher, bullying someone, beating up on a sister, littering, pushing someone down the stairs—and then also enumerated the good stuff—helping mom in the kitchen, recycling, working with the homeless—the officers shared their own thumbnail biographies.
Sports: Common Ground
The kids were fascinated with how many of the officers knew from when they were young that they wanted to be police officers. They were surprised how the officers had been high-school and college athletes. Second-year Officer Elizabeth White, who patrols at Brookside and Westville Manor, is a former national rugby player, they learned
Newly minted Lt. Makiem Miller came by with Chief Esserman Monday because he wants to consider bringing the YPI to the Whalley/Beaver Hills district, where he is about to become district manager. Miller, who is now 41, gripped the kids’ attention with tales of his being a high school sports star in West Haven and then going on to play two years of minor league baseball.
“I saw myself in you,” he said responding to the kids’ speeches. “We’re normal like you. I fought with my sister too, till I was bigger than her.”
“Keep your sports dreams alive,” Miller advised. “Police is the next level of sports. Everyone’s got a role. We all have got a big goal for the community, we all have roles to play, cops on foot, on bicycle, on motorcycles. Keep that teamwork ethic because I kept that ethic alive” from sports and it transferred easily to police work, he concluded.
That resonated with Terence.
Over pizza at the end of the session, he said he had been listening carefully to Miller on the similarity between police work and sports. “You got to run, you’ve got to keep fit, teamwork,” he concurred.
He reiterated he plans to become a police officer. But first he will try out for the NBA.