Following a spate of police shootings of unarmed civilians and several chilling assassinations of on-duty officers, no one can deny there is major tension in cities across the nation. So how to ease the built-up anxiety and pressure between citizens and those who are supposed to protect them? Big Brothers Big Sisters, the nation’s oldest mentoring organization, decided their group wanted to be part of the solution.
Their plan was simple. Match law enforcement officers with youngsters in at-risk communities.
Turning to some of their existing Big Brothers who just happened to be police officers, they devised a nationwide program called “Bigs in Blue.” The idea is to enlist many more men and women who wear a badge to join the effort to turn around inner-city attitudes.
As BBBS President Pam Iorio put it, “The only way we are going to understand one another better on any level, whether its policing … or any other divide that we see in this country is through the power of one-to-one relationships.”
No one program will turn around negative opinions of police overnight. As one principal at a participating school in Philadelphia put it, the target kids often see police as the bad guy.
“Quite often our children have seen parents being arrested by police,” said Stefan Feaster-Eberhardt. “Quite often there are police in their communities and it’s always something negative.”
The new program was modeled after the efforts of a group of volunteer officers in Roanoke, Va. NBC News recently highlighted one of them, detective Ryan Brady, who has mentored 9-year-old Robert for two years.
The detective is a 28-year-old white man. Little Brother Robert is African American.
The BBBS reports that when the group of uniformed officers first walked into Highland Park Elementary, the kids shied away.
“They were actually a little fearful,” Brady said. “Above all else, we want(ed) the kids to know we’re a safe place.”
The children’s trust was slow in coming but after the officers kept returning week after week, working with the youngsters one-on-one and engaging in group activities, real friendships developed.
Detective Brady fills the gap for Robert’s hardworking single mother, who has four other children to care for. She is terrific, but a boy needs a positive male role model. Ryan helps Robert with his homework, plays sports with him, made sure he got to go to summer baseball camp and introduced the 9-year-old to his law enforcement colleagues.
Recently, when the detective’s home was lost in an electrical fire, destroying everything and taking the life of his beloved dog, Robert was worried sick for his Big Brother.
Displaying an act of compassion some adults lack, the boy urged his mom to immediately call their BBBS liaison to see what they could do to help. It was a real-life lesson in brotherhood where friends support each other in both good times and bad.
This year, Robert’s class discussed careers and when his teacher asked the room, “What do police officers do?” and one of the kids answered, “Shoot people,” Robert said he had to speak up.
“That’s not true,” the boy told his classmates. “My Big Brother is a police officer and he doesn’t shoot people.” Then he told them all about detective Brady.
Now, when the band of uniformed Big Brothers visits the neighborhood where the children live, the kids are excited. They shout hello and boast to others that they know the officers.
Detective Ryan says it’s a program that helps more than just the children. It helps feed the soul of those who walk a beat or patrol a troubled neighborhood.
“When you’re a police officer, a lot of times, you deal with the one percent of people who are negative. You can get jaded,” Brady said. “99 percent of our interactions are with that one percent. That’s why I wanted to do this. Being in the neighborhood with the kids, you get to see how good people are.”
What does Robert say about being matched with a police officer? “I think it’s good because you get somebody that really, like, knows you and gets along with you very well, so if you’re in trouble, you have somebody to go to,” he said.
Putting kids together with cops to build friendships. So simple. So effective.
The Big Brother Big Sister organization says that some version of the Bigs in Blue program is up and running in 12 cities. They hope to take it to every major metropolitan area as soon as possible.
That takes money, of course. If you’re looking for a worthy group to honor with an end-of-the-year donation, I hope you consider supporting Bigs in Blue.