Editorial: Cops and kids, and the future

Young people and police are often uneasy about one another. The notion of uniformed police as regular presences in academic settings is generally associated with inner city neighborhoods and violent episodes involving in-school troublemakers, police investigations, drugs, and weapons.

Thankfully, that’s not the case here. What we do have, as Times writer Jack Shea describes this morning, is a modest, but inspired effort by leaders at the Edgartown School and members of Edgartown Police Department to introduce wary students to law enforcement officers in ways that will certainly lead to less wariness and more relaxed cooperation between the two. The joint program aims to build durable relationships between officers and the 320 K-8 students in Edgartown.

Principal John Stevens called it “a way of paying forward.” He referred to a cooking class in which officers David Rossi and Stephanie Immelt hosted fourth through eighth graders.

The inspiration came from Chief Tony Bettencourt. It’s a derivative of the concept of community policing, and the hallmark is early action. But, what sort of action?

Community policing, familiar to most of us because of its political currency, has been hazily understood and variously implemented over the past two decades. In a lot of places, community policing meant foot-patrols and the beat officers getting back into neighborhoods. But, in a fuller sense, there was a lot of confusion about the term.

“Community policing,” Robert Friedman, a researcher in law-enforcement effectiveness, wrote in 1992, in an attempt at a definition, “is a policy and a strategy aimed at achieving more effective and efficient crime control, reduced fear of crime, improved quality of life, improved police services and police legitimacy, through a proactive reliance on community resources that seeks to change crime-causing conditions. This assumes a need for greater accountability of police, greater public share in decision making, and greater concern for civil rights and liberties.”

The key goal, no matter how the concept may be employed elsewhere, is a greater, more engaged share in community decision making by residents, beginning with the young. It’s a concept that was, as it happened, natural to Chief Bettencourt and to principal Stevens, to officers in the chief’s department, and to parents and educational leaders in Edgartown.

“I hope to embed it going forward,” Mr. Stevens told The Times, speaking of this uniquely Edgartownian approach to community policing. “It’s hard to measure how kids perceive police, maybe a survey would help, but we want kids to be comfortable going up to Stephanie or David in uniform on the street because they see a person, not a uniform.”

In the news report this morning, all of these contributors to the Edgartown program cite early benefits, but it may be that the long-term rewards will be greater for the town and for the students who will one day become voters, taxpayers, and decision makers.