As Officer Josh Johnson crossed the street toward the West End Center on Patterson Avenue in southwest Roanoke, children playing out on the blacktop flocked toward the fence in excitement to greet him.
Johnson, dressed in his Roanoke police uniform, will tell you it took some time before they treated his arrival that way.
“You always get the initial leeriness,” Johnson said. “But then they’ll warm up to you and start coming up to you. I’ve noticed how their interactions have changed.”
Johnson, Lt. Michelle Vandergrift and children at the West End Center were making cards for sick children at the local hospital. Sometimes other officers come to do homework with them or play games outside at the center, a nonprofit youth program for children in the Hurt Park neighborhood.
A week doesn’t go by that the Roanoke Police Department doesn’t have officers drop by various places all over the city and spend time with children. This initiative is part of the department’s shift over the years from traditional forms of policing, such as zero tolerance and reactive responses to crime, to concepts including alternatives to arrests and citizen-centric policing.
“Years ago, we saw the value of how we’ve got to invest more heavily in the young folks, because we know in a few years they’re going to be the teens or the young adults that are going to be driving this community,” Capt. Rick Morrison said.
Barrier of the uniform
Engaging with residents is not a new policing strategy, but police departments are re-evaluating the role it plays in their operations as they watch cities such as Baltimore, New York and Ferguson, Missouri, succumb to angry protests over police brutality.
Roanoke Police Chief Chris Perkins has placed a high priority on community engagement for years, so the department has simply been adding new programs. For some time officers have been reading to toddlers at various Head Start programs, visiting elementary schools to talk about safety and participating in community walks. In the fall, Roanoke police became involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia and the West End Center.
“Our kids need to know police officers are here to help them,” said Danny Britton, program director at the West End Center. “They’re here to help, and the kids don’t have to be scared of them.”
At the West End Center, several of the kids, while coloring and decorating cards, started jokingly asking the officers if they ever shot someone “just like what happened on the TV news.”
It’s those sorts of perceptions that the officers are trying to combat.
“What we do gets put into a negative overall context,” Morrison said. “We’ve got to try and break that.”
Children’s animosity toward police was an issue before the events in Ferguson and elsewhere unfolded.
University of Chicago professor Forrest Stuart, who researches sociological and criminological theory, said that some police departments’ disrespectful actions toward youths, especially in black neighborhoods, leads to feelings of fear and humiliation. Young people don’t know whether the officer rolling up in a squad car is a good or bad cop.
“They’re walking away with confusion. ... There is a lot of fear and feeling of a lack of accountability,” Stuart said.
The Roanoke Police Department places much of its focus on engagement in northwest Roanoke. It’s where most of the city’s violent crime occurs. All five homicides this year — and, as of May 31, 44 percent of the violent crime in the city — occurred in that quadrant, according to police data.
This month, the police department, along with other organizations, launched its first summer youth basketball league at Melrose Park. The league, named after city Councilman Sherman Lea, is intended to forge a bond between young people and police, who are serving as coaches and organizers.
“The youth can learn how to respect the officers, and the officers can learn how to respect the youth,” Lea said.
On June 4, the league hosted its first games on the newly resurfaced courts. Ashley Barksdale looked on from the bleachers as her son, Donovan St. Juste, 12, played in a game coached by an officer.
“It’s good to see the officers out there in a positive way,” she said.
A few of the children observed that officers often hovered outside the fence or huddled together and didn’t interact too much the kids. Others, like Jazz Lynch, 13, sat with an officer to operate the scoreboard and talk.
“With the way crime is around the country and the way people look at police, doing this gives them a chance to better their reputation,” Jazz said.
It also gives the officers the opportunity to learn about the youngsters in the community they police.
“It’s a chance for them to get to know us, and know we’re not all out here selling drugs,” said Robert Smith, 14, who used to live in northwest Roanoke and was playing in a basketball game.
Morrison said officers can become jaded if they’re mostly having negative interactions in a particular community, so activities like the basketball league can help them mend that attitude.
“If we’re constantly chasing people who are shooting people and robbing people, your perception of teenagers — if you come across a teenager — may become you thinking they’re ‘thugs’ or ‘deviants,’” Morrison said. “And that’s not fair.”
Northwest Roanoke community activist Jeff Artis has never shied from voicing his criticisms about the Roanoke Police Department. He views the youth engagement as another effort to build strong police-community bonds and repair any damaged relationships.
“Perkins realizes that the more people get to know one another, the better their relationships are going to be,” he said.
After the games ended, Capt. Sam Roman gathered the children for a “quality moment” to talk to them — using basketball analogies — about how they can be positive influences in the neighborhood.
“We all have to play our role to make our community successful,” he said.
What police departments like Roanoke are doing has short- and long-term goals in mind, experts and officials said.
In the short term, Morrison hopes that tensions won’t be high while officers are investigating crime scenes, and perhaps youths will even be willing to speak up to help in gathering evidence. Years down the road, he hopes some children will be deterred from committing crimes.
Stuart stressed that for relationships to truly change between youth and police, departments need to examine aggressive policing in certain areas of cities that leads to the development of negative perceptions of cops. Departments also need to have quality, transparent accountability procedures , he said.
“No number of reading to toddlers and no number of basketball leagues will change the relationship between children and cops without that,” Stuart said. “Those activities will just be Band-Aids.”
Activities like the basketball league are steps in the right direction, said Carla Shedd, an assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Stanford University. Shedd’s research focuses on crime and race, and she said children understand there are good and bad cops, but the uniform can blur them.
“If they get to see one another and know one another, that helps,” Shedd said. “The kids know them as individuals, so maybe the kids will realize that a positive relationship is possible with another officer, but there needs to be relationship development.”
A few officers are trying to do just that through Big Brothers Big Sisters and its after-school Oliver Hill Mentoring Program. The first few times officers showed up in the fall to the Oliver Hill House in northwest Roanoke, the children jeered.
“They’d say, ‘What are the pigs doing here? I don’t like the popo,’” said Judith Gullion, educational support specialist for Big Brothers Big Sisters. “They had negative associations with policemen.”
Gullion said that as time went on, the children began to accept the officers, and a few of them even mentioned a desire to become a police officer one day. Four officers even got their own Littles.
Officer Ryan Brady volunteered at Oliver Hill before he eventually signed up for the program and took on a Little Brother of his own. In addition to the traditional activities of helping with homework and crafts, Brady joined his Little Brother on a class field trip and went ice skating with him.
“You want to plant the seeds early with kids,” Brady said. “It’s good for them to see us in a positive light.”