Too often when a community member sees a uniformed officer, their pulse quickens a bit. Their breath catches as their minds run through a variety of scenarios all based on past experience. Most interactions with the police are unfortunately negative, and this holds true for children as well. Officers aren’t usually called to their homes, day cares or schools for just a friendly visit. Too often, they watch as police have to do their business of controlling situations where others are violating the laws and other people’s rights. But what if these experiences aren’t the only ones children have with officers? What if there were programs where officers interact with children on a more personal level, in a fun and positive way? What if the scenarios imprinted in a child’s memory were good?
Two law enforcement agencies, one on the eastern seaboard and one in the south have found a way to do just that. St. Landry Parish (La.) Sheriff Department and Maryland State Police (MSP) are making a difference and putting a positive spin on the relationship between cops and kids.
Kids that hunt and fish don’t “steal and deal”
In the 1980s a bumper sticker stating, “Kids that hunt and fish don’t steal and deal” inspired the Louisiana State Police to begin a program called Camp Win-a-Friend. Several decades later, two retired state troopers had moved on to other law enforcement positions but wanted to bring that inspiration of children interacting with law enforcement officers in a natural environment to St. Landry Parish, and Kops and Kids Outdoor Adventure Program was born.
“We were able to get a piece of property we could lease within driving distance of Opelousas, Louisiana,” explains Major Richard Williams, St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office, one of the cofounders of Kops and Kids. “We wanted to introduce kids to something other than video games. Many kids have never been exposed to hunting and fishing. It gives them a chance to be involved with something other than inter-city activities.”
Utilizing two properties, one 500 acres and another 100 acres, the sheriff staff and deputies take around ten children ages nine to 13 on an outdoor adventure, including a weekend spent in the compound which includes a bunk house and a common area with cooking facilities. “We target 10- to 13-year-olds since this is the most impressionable group we have,” states Williams. “If they’re younger than that they aren’t mature enough to participate, and,” he jokes, “a teenager already knows everything.”
Any St. Landry Parish citizen, POST certified law enforcement officer or medical or social work professional can make a referral to the program. Most of the participants come from single parent homes in a lower socioeconomic status. “You’d be surprised how many single parent families are out there,” explains Williams. “A lot of the mothers like the opportunity to have the boys involved with a male. I wish we had more facilities to take more kids during the camps.”
Party barges and alligators
The first camp was held in December of 2009 and since that time several hundreds of kids have gone through the Kops and Kids weekend adventure. During the camps, officers act as mentors for the kids, showing them officers are good, positive resources while also teaching useful outdoor skills. Along with traditional outdoor activities, like hunting and fishing, the program offers summer trips on the party barge, trail rides on bikes and ATVs and unusual off-sites. “We’ve been taking them to an alligator farm to pet baby alligators,” Williams explains. To continue the positive law enforcement influence, at the end of the weekend the kids are taken on a tour of the corrections center. “It’s a way of showing them it’s better to do what we just did then to end up here,” says Williams.