Officer Robert Clark was speaking to a group of second-graders in the Hill Central School library Wednesday afternoon when a little girl raised her hand and said, “Sometimes I’m scared of cops.” Clark, smiling, replied, “We’ll work on that.”
Over the rest of the academic year, Clark will make weekly visits to Hill Central School, a pre-K through eighth-grade institution at 140 Dewitt St., as part of a new initiative to strengthen ties between the city’s police department and elementary school students. The program, which was formally announced Wednesday at a press event in Hill School, places police officers in grade schools for one or two hours per week as an extension of New Haven’s community policing philosophy.
Each of the New Haven’s 10 policing districts is assigned one community-based officer, who is responsible for maintaining police relations with businesses and individuals in their district. As part of that responsibility, every community-based officer has been assigned to three grade schools within their individual district to visit weekly. The visits are scheduled to last between an hour-and-a-half and two hours each week and are intended to build positive relationships between the police department and students.
“The New Haven Police Department is committed to community policing, which is why we initiated this program,” said NHPD Chief Dean Esserman in an official statement. “When kids get to know their neighborhood police officer at school and then see him again when they get off the bus in the afternoon, that creates a bond. That officer is one more positive role model in that child’s life.”
New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo added he wants city youth “to look at New Haven police officers as role models, mentors and friends.”
Discussions to create this program first began at the beginning of the school year in September. The NHPD committed to sending officers to every local public school within three days of school opening, and after conducting the visits, the police department sought to institutionalize continued outreach with New Haven students, said NHPD Lt. Luiz Casanova. He added that after meeting with the city’s board of education, the NHPD partnered with 30 grade schools throughout the Elm City to launch the initiative, which currently remains unnamed.
“Kids of New Haven are precious to all of us,” Casanova said at yesterday’s press conference, speaking to a class of second-graders. “We want the kids of our school system to become familiar with the police.”
Both officers and school administrators present at the event emphasized that the program is not intended to involve police in student discipline.
“The officer is not in there as a disciplinarian, he is there to try to get the kids to understand that the police officers are friendly people that they can go to and establish meaningful relationships with the cops,” said Sgt. Ricardo Rodriguez. “Our goal of going into schools is not to arrest kids.”
Glen Worthy, Hill School’s principal, noted that the school has never needed to involve police in a student disciplinary issue, adding that “once police officers come into a school to arrest kids, especially elementary school, then as adults we’ve done something wrong.”
This partnership between the NHPD and local schools is also intended as a strategy to reduce crime throughout the city, said Clark, who described the initiative as a “generational investment in the community.”
“There’s so much negative perception [of cops]: that’s where the fear comes from,” Clark said. “My job here is to mold these kids not to be afraid of police officers, but to develop positive bonds with them.”
New Haven currently has six full-time school resource officers who are specially trained to deal with students and are normally assigned to the city’s high schools. According to Sgt. Rodriguez, Esserman plans to boost their numbers to 15 next September.