The Freeport Police Department’s Adopt-A Cop program works with school children to encourage communication and deter violence, an especially appropriate goal amid the recent assassinations of law enforcement officers elsewhere in the country and the protests over the use of deadly force in police actions in Louisiana and Minnesota.
The Adopt-A Cop program in Freeport celebrated 20 years this June. It began with six police officers who volunteered to meet with the fourth grade students at Bayview Avenue School on an ongoing basis in order to foster informal interaction with the children and dispel negative police stereotypes. Twenty years later the program has close to 30 Freeport police officers going to all the fourth grade classes – Bayview, New Visions, Giblyn and Archer Street.
“The kids love it and we love it,” Mike Smith, deputy chief of Freeport Police, said at the year-end celebration for the Adopt-A-Cop program. “We do things with the kids throughout the year and they get to know us. Some of the children feel they should be afraid of us, but we’re just people,” he said. “We encourage them to say hi if they see us on the street, and talk with us.”
The Adopt-A-Cop program was launched in 1996 after then Deputy Inspector Michael Woodward went to Bayview Avenue School to speak to the children about the Freeport Police Department. There was one 9-year-old girl who told Woodward she was afraid for her future. She “stated that if she found a gun she would keep it for protection as she feared dying because so many people have guns that she won’t be alive in 10 years,” Woodward wrote in a report to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 1996.
When the program was founded, research indicated that children were being exposed to “social poisoning,” Dr. James Garabino wrote in a 1993 study by the American Psychology Association’s Commission on Violence and Youth. “The social poisoning results from a combined exposure to violence witnessed personally or through the media,” he wrote. "In addition, prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization towards violence," said the Commission.
Children’s exposure to violence continues to rise, according to a paper called “Violence, Abuse and Crime Exposure in a National Sample of Children and Youth,” written by Drs. David Finkelholr, Heather Turner, Richard Ormrod and Sherry L. Hamby for the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2009. In addition to media exposure children hear or witness many other kinds of violence, including assaults and bullying, family violence and abuse, Internet victimization, exposure to community violence, sexual victimization, property victimization, as well as witnessing violence against someone else. “This exposure is responsible for considerable physical and mental health morbidity,” said the authors. “A clear majority (60.6%) of the children and youth in the nationally representative sample had experienced at least one direct or witnessed victimization in the previous year,” they wrote.
The Adopt-A-Cop program is intended to help combat that environment. Although “it began with a letter writing program, it has blossomed over time,” Cindy Misrock, Bayview Avenue’s Youth Counselor said. “The children have a relationship all year long with their adopted cop. The officers come to the classroom and participate in different activities. They are very excited to see them. They recognize them in the community.”
One of the program’s goals is to reassure children about their safety and discuss methods the children may use to avoid potentially hazardous situations. They also try to provide an avenue for children to discuss positive alternate means to resolve conflict or express anger or frustration as an alternative to violence or alcohol/drug activity.
“It is a program that stresses mentorship, leadership and helps to teach life skills,” Kishore Kuncham, superintendent of Freeport Schools said. “I’ve seen police officers come to our concerts to support the children. It’s wonderful.”
Arturo Veleasquez is one of those officers. “I go for my kids,” said Valeasquez, who spent his free time attending New Visions’ spring concert. “I came from El Salvador when I was in the seventh grade and I know it can be hard growing up. I want to give back.”
The last goal of the Adopt-A-Cop program is to provide insight on the function of police officers and encourage students to consider law enforcement as a possible career.
Several Freeport police officers, including Alan Moreno and Alan Kessler, went through the Adopt-A-Cop program. “Loved it then and love it now,” Kessler said. “The kids ask lots of questions. It’s a good education for them and I tell them the pros and cons of being a police officer.”
“The officers like it too,” Misrock said. “It’s amazing; at Valentine’s Day there was a luncheon at Bayview and the kids sang and danced and did skits. You should have seen the reaction on the officers’ faces.”
At the end of year celebration, the students had another opportunity to interact with their mentors as well as other police officers from other agencies, including the state and county, for hands-on demonstration of the police department’s equipment and interact with special detail officers such as K-9 or mounted officers.
Students excitedly went from one demonstration to another. “The dogs are the best,” Manuel said. His friend Patrick said he preferred the pizza and soda that followed the program. Both agreed that it was “a fun day,” Patrick said.
Misrock smiles. “This program is about building good relationships,” she said