Courtesy of Sergeant Ron Ferrante

Police officers are now visiting classrooms in New Haven-area elementary schools in an attempt to boost their department’s community image.

The “Cookies with Cops” program was launched in early September as part of the New Haven Police Department’s broader community policing efforts. Chief Karl Jacobson said he hopes the program will help children trust officers more and encourage NHPD recruitment in the long term.

Upon request from school administration, school resource officers — sworn police officers stationed in schools with the ability to arrest — have been visiting elementary schools across the city, where they pass out stickers and toys, give a talk about basic safety rules and answer questions from the students.

“We hear a lot about the negatives of SRO’s, saying, ‘Oh, that’s just the school to prison pipeline,’” NHPD Chief Karl Jacobson said. “Well, New Haven doesn’t want to be that. We want to be the school to police officer pipeline.”

The program is not universally loved — at least one parent raised concerns with the effort at a recent Board of Education meeting. 

“Our children should not be the targets of public relations campaigns by our local PD,” Camile Scott, a parent to a third grader, testified to the board. “This is clearly a recruitment tool for the police department.”

The program hosted its first event at Mauro Sheridan Magnet School on Tuesday, Oct. 4. Students in Mrs. Bitterman’s 4th grade class were introduced to SROs who spoke to the class about extracurricular and summer programs run through the police department. 

Mayor Justin Elicker and Assistant Superintendent Viviana Conner also attended the event.

“One of our goals is to build relationships with family and communities,” Conner said. “And the police are part of our community. They are one of the entities that help our families, not just when there’s a crime.”

Jacobson agreed, describing the overall goal of the program as being part of his push for more “community policing” through NHPD outreach. Both he and Sergeant Ron Ferrante — head of the NHPD’s Youth Services Department and the head of the SRO program — emphasized that another focus was to encourage students to trust and interact with police in their neighborhoods and schools.

Approximately a dozen New Haven schools have participated in the Cookies with Cops program so far.

Jacobson told the News that the SRO program has brought more than 20 new cops to the NHPD.

I think it just promotes the ability for officers to have better interactions [with students] when something bad is happening. But also, it’s almost like a recruitment tool,” Jacobson said. 

Community feedback 

Doubts about the program have also risen among local community activists. Jahnice Cajigas, director of community organizing for local youth activism group Citywide Youth Coalition, argued that SROs should not be promoted as resources in classrooms.

“I think it’s harmful to continue to push our students into spaces with police officers knowing the violence that many of our students witness in their communities,” she said. 

Cajigas instead advocated for the redistribution of resources from NHPD into city-wide mental health initiatives and education funding, on the grounds that those programs would better serve New Haven students. 

Justin Harmon, director of communications for the New Haven Public Schools Office of the Superintendent, noted that the Cookies with Cops program attempts to counteract these concerns.

“There’s research that indicates that any contact with police can be traumatizing or difficult for young children,” Harmon said. “The premise of the program is to try and destress and normalize those contacts so that they’re not afraid to go to the police for help.”

Ferrante described the events as universally positive, saying that the visits were about having fun with kids more than anything else. 

Origins and future of Cookies with Cops

For Ferrante, the idea of running police department programming in city schools came out of his experiences growing up. He cited an officer who would play kickball with his class as an inspiration for him to become a police officer.

NHPD has had a long-standing “Coffee with Cops” program in New Haven, where community members can discuss local issues with police over a cup of joe. Ferrante wanted to bring a similar level of police-community interaction to elementary schools, but replaced coffee with  cookies as a child-friendly alternative.

Conner said she felt enthusiastic about the idea after being approached by Ferrante. While the idea was initially to introduce the program in one or two schools, teacher and administrator interest in the program was high. 

Visits have been booked through the end of the year, and Ferrante estimates that by the end of the month, the SROs will have met with over 1400 students, with many more to come.

Among the programs being promoted in the classroom visits is the New Haven Police Activity League, a nonprofit run by volunteer police officers that conducts programming during both the summer and after school for New Haven youth.

“We have a jiu jitsu program which could emulate stars like that Transgender MMA Fighter, we have Taekwondo, we’re setting up a chess club,” Ferante said. “We’re trying to find activities and events just to give kids [non-sports] options.” 

As for the future of Cookies with Cops, Jacobson expressed his hopes about the potential for expansion. He also noted that the department only has five SRO’s, which is down from over a dozen before COVID-19. 

“As I get more officers on the job. I’m going to expand [the program],” Jacobson predicted.

NHPS has 31 Pre-K-8, Elementary and Middle Schools.

Ava Saylor serves as an editor for WKND and covers education and youth services. She is a junior in Ezra Stiles College majoring in political science and education studies.
Nathaniel Rosenberg is City Editor for the News. He previously served as Audience Editor, where he managed the News's newsletter content, covered cops and courts and housing and homelessness for the City Desk. Originally from Silver Spring, MD, he is a junior in Morse College majoring in history.