Communication and respect are crucial to building good relationships between young people and police.
But some young people might not be quite ready—or feel comfortable—having that conversation.
Those seemed to be the two themes of Tuesday’s “Bridging the Gap: Police + Youth Town Hall” meeting at Rotary Botanical Gardens, which at least 50 people attended.
The event was a joint effort of Project 16:49, a local organization that helps homeless and unaccompanied teens, and national organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.
Fight Crime: Invest in Kids’ Police Training Institute works with police departments nationwide to show officers how to de-escalate conflict and have positive interactions with youth. The institute has held town hall meetings across the country to talk about the issue.
“Any time we can have a conversation, we can move things forward,” said Juan Cloy, deputy director of community outreach and training for the organization.
The event’s panel featured three young people, Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore and two Janesville police officers.
Cloy opened by asking the officers how they felt about their interactions with local youth. He then asked the young people what their interactions had been like and if they trusted police.
In response, two of the young people said “no,” and a third said “sometimes.”
What changes do they want to see?
One young woman mentioned “eye contact” and “respect.” A young man said he would like officers to take more time to communicate with people in incidents that involve police.
The third member of the panel declined to answer the question at all and just shook her head.
Cloy asked if officers thought there was a gap between the work of police and young people in the community.
“Yes, I think there is a gap,” Moore said. “While we have a good community mission (public safety), we often have to use negative methods to accomplish the mission. With that, there’s going to be a gap.”
The police department has worked to get officers into communities they serve with events such as neighborhood cookouts and National Night Out and, perhaps most important, making connections with youth.
Moore said officers took the time to get to know a group of kids with whom they’d had negative experiences. That relationship became more positive when officers learned more about the kids. One kid said he wanted to play football, but he couldn’t afford the shoes. A police officer bought him a pair.
Denise Stutika, an Edison Middle School resource officer, said the relationships she’s formed with students have made a big difference and have helped them trust her.
After difficult incidents with students, she’s even found apology notes in her mailbox at school.