A group of New Haven Police Department officers have been regularly entering local public schools — not for crime control or bureaucratic matters, but to play chess, among other games, and to allow schoolkids to get a taste of what it means to patrol a neighborhood. Beginning last week, two officers were assigned to mentor kids in the New Haven chapter of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Colin Ross takes a look at the utility of this alternative education.

Members of the New Haven Boys & Girls Club are getting into the habit of calling police officers “coach” instead of “cop.”

With the recent surge in homicides, New Haven Police Department Chief James Lewis has been investing more manpower into community initiatives. One such initiative — the Police Activities League — organizes sports, competitions and games for children in underprivileged neighborhoods. And last week, the League partnered with the New Haven chapter of the Boys and Girls Club of America, and assigned two officers to work with the Club full time. NHPD officials hope to improve the image of the police in the minds of the community while preventing New Haven’s youth from falling into the gang lifestyle.

Lewis said the program will have a broad scope.

“We are calling it the activities league, not the athletics league,” he said. “Whatever the kids want to do. If the kids want to play chess, we’ll set it up in one of the offices.”

As a result of the partnership, the police officers, Marcus Tavares and Nancy Jorden, will also have at their disposal free materials, such as computers, donated to the Club by Microsoft Corporation.

“In this way, we can help neighborhoods with computers where there are no good resources,” said Lewis.

Stephanie Barnes, the executive director of the New Haven Boys & Girls Club, was full of praise for the initiative.

“We had common interests to serve the youth who need us most,” she said. “It’s academic and recreational, and it also lets the kids see the police in other roles, as mentors and coaches. It’s a great addition.”

Chief Lewis has said that it will be a free addition, as the Department plans to fund the program with seized drug money, a goal that is now possible with the reinstated Narcotics Division.

The League, Lewis emphasized, is one of many initiatives that will be key to building up the Department’s image in neighborhoods where crime and drugs are prevalent. The city has recently had trouble dealing with what they refer to as a code of silence among New Haven residents, by which they will not report or disclose information to the police when they witness crimes. The Gang Resistance Education and Training program encourages kids to resist peer pressure related to joining a gang by using the same strategy as the anti-drug DARE program. It too comes at no expense to the city taxpayer, as it is funded by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a federal law-enforcement agency.

“We have to get at them early,” Lewis said. “We have to start in 4th or 5th grade before the gangs get to them.”

Lewis also plans to expand the Explorers program, described as ROTC for law enforcement aimed at teenagers.

“We had similar cadet programs when I was in Pomona and Bakersville,” Lewis said. “[The kids] work in the community, in uniform, and we have eight years to watch them grow. And at the end we’ve created New Haven cops.”

As promising as the programs sound, questions remain about their effectiveness. Urban narcotics experts claim the DARE program had no effect on the self-esteem or on level of drug use for those who went through it.

But Barnes argued that this program will be successful because it is firmly rooted in the New Haven community.

“Both officers are from the community. They know the kids and have patrolled the area. They can connect and relate.”

Also of concern is whether, with the rise in homicides and property crimes, the activities league is the best full-time use of two veteran officers. Still, Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark of the New Haven Youth Committee is certain it is the right approach.

“It’s a great idea,” she said. “Anything that engages young people and gives them opportunities is wonderfu,l and I laud Chief Lewis for his actions.”

Asked if the resources should instead be used on violent crime, she replied that they already were.

“Who is doing the shootings? Kids are doing the shootings,” she replied. “We have to help grow and develop them before they get in gangs. It is important that they feel someone is paying attention to them.”

The program is only in its second week and the officers are busy recruiting.

“We’re just getting started,” said Barnes.