In 2020, the Union City, N.J., Police Department was unable to hold its annual summer Junior Police Academy. However, Police Chief Nichelle Luster still wanted to find a way to connect with children in the community.
The city has 14 schools with an approximate student population around 14,000. Each school has a uniformed school resource officer. These school resource officers help to find candidates for the Junior Police Academy. However, with school on virtual learning beginning in March due to the pandemic and restrictions making the academy an impossibility, Luster got to thinking about “how to make my officers interact with these kids.”
In a brainstorming session between herself, the mayor and the school resource officers, Union City’s Cops Care program was born. The goal of the program was to find activities that would be inexpensive, require little setup and be something the kids would want to do anyway. Since school resource officers are also on the front line for discovering and helping with social issues and issues at home, Luster wanted to ensure children still had the ability to reach out.
The Cops Care program “went old school,” as Luster described. They held small gatherings at various locations with different time slots available. Throughout the months of July and August, the department held 81 Cops Care events. Flyers and social media were used to share with the community what neighborhood Cops Care would be in and what days and times certain events would take place.
In choosing activities and locations, the program was headed by lead officers, school resource officers and DARE officers who led and organized each event. The department also worked with the board of education on using the school facilities for the program. Often times the events would take place in the city’s schoolyards.
Activities at these events included pickup basketball, volleyball, kickball and demonstrations from the emergency service unit and K-9 unit. Demonstrations were utilized to try to take the mystery and fear out of the police department’s equipment and teach children not to fear the dogs, equipment or officers. A nonprofit organization, We Care, even taught clinics on, as Luster described it, “the lost art of jump roping.” Each event was led by one or two police officers, typically a school resource officer.
Safety precautions were set in place so all children participating underwent temperature screenings, wore masks, were socially distanced and used provided hand sanitizer. Some days three or four children would show up; some days there were around 16 or 17 children. Small snacks and water were also provided.
One of the main goals of the Union City Police Department is to be involved in the community. After the events, the department would seek out feedback. This is how Luster discovered the jumping rope clinics were a bigger hit than organizers would have imagined. Overall the events and program received extremely positive feedback. Pre-pandemic the police department would also hold approximately 100 community meetings a year to gather feedback and ideas and discuss what has been happening in the community.
“Moving forward I always want to have some component of the Cops Care program,” Luster stated. She admitted, “The scale will depend on where we are with Junior Police Academy.” If safety restrictions allow the Junior Police Academy to continue this summer, she does not want to lose that one-on-one assistance the program offers. “It (Cops Care) will continue, just scaled down. Maybe two to three times a week,” she explained.
With such easy access to the news and social media, children could easily become overwhelmed with negative news stories regarding law enforcement and creating a fear of police officers. One of Luster’s goals is to ensure that does not happen in Union City. “Now more than ever, it’s important to show the community we’re people, too, and get out and play with the kids,” she emphasized. For any cities looking to create a similar program, Luster suggested utilizing school resource officers and partnering with the board of education as well as a possible municipal alliance. These resources can help with facilities, program ideas and more.