by Donna J. Wade
When the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department hosted its first graduation from its newly-instituted Junior Police Academy program, it was more than a day of professional pride for School Resource Officer Steve Williams and the Assistant Chief, Colonel Terry Zeigler. For them, it’s personal.
Williams, a Kansas City native and 22-year veteran of the department, sees his involvement with the program as a way to give back to the community where he grew up. In fact, he has known many of the parents of the cadets since childhood.
“As a former DARE officer, I enjoyed working with young people. I enjoyed seeing the light come on in their minds when they learn something new,” Williams stated. But that’s just part of what makes Williams a good JPA instructor. He’s also a good listener.
I enjoyed seeing the light come on in their minds when they learn something new.
“What I find rewarding is building that relationship with young people and answering any question that’s on their minds. I enjoy listening to their questions, seeing how they feel about law enforcement and understanding why they feel that way. One benefit is that the young people will let you know what is lacking in the community. Not listening to them sets the community up to fail, because these kids are our future,” he explained.
For Zeigler, the graduating cadets represent something he learned from personal experience in high school – that a caring adult, whether a guidance counselor, teacher or mentor, who is willing to invest a little time and genuine concern in a student can have a tremendous impact on a child’s direction in life.
“In my younger days, I was a D-student,” Zeigler remembers. “When I was a senior in high school, I found a good job, so I decided to just quit school to go make money. But my guidance counselor sat me down and said, ‘I’m not going to let you quit. If you quit now, you’ll never finish anything in your life.’ He set me up with a work program, where I attended school for an hour or so in the morning, then went to work. My boss had to fill out a few forms for the school, but I graduated. And I went on to earn Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. It only took that counselor about 20 minutes to turn my life around, so it showed me that what we say and do really does impact people.”
It only took that counselor about 20 minutes to turn my life around, so it showed me that what we say and do really does impact people.
The Fairfax Learning Center, where the pilot JPA was conducted from January through May of this year, is a small alternative school whose roughly 70 students are credit-deficient and at risk of not graduating. Just like Zeigler.
They are also at-risk of becoming involved in gangs or other criminal activity. “With this being an alternative school in the inner city, all my students are high-risk,” Williams said. “For most of them, this school is their last chance. All of them have been kicked out of public school for different reasons.”
“Most of the students are from lower to lower middle class families. 10% of the young people here have some type of criminal history. All of the kids here are behind on credits (that’s how they qualify to go to school at Fairfax) due to many different reasons (arrest, pregnancy, and behavior among them.) The student body is 65% African American, 20% Hispanic, 10% white and 5% other.”
Though Kansas City PD embraced the concept of community policing about 15 years ago, it had never implemented an outreach program targeting teenagers. Both the flexibility of the JPA curriculum and the fact that it could be implemented cheaply, utilizing personnel already in place at the schools, made it a good fit for their needs. It is Zeigler’s belief that reaching out to young people in the county is integral to the department being proactive in reducing crime.
Their success with the DARE program in middle schools led department managers to believe that officers could impact people’s lives regardless of their age. The first JPA class graduated over 30 cadets, and was so successful that it was rolled out at the start of this school year at Schlagel High School, a larger public school in the district. If all goes as planned, the JPA will graduate around 170 cadets from that school next May.
Donna J. Wade is a freelance writer, graphic designer and former police officer who lives in the mountains of southern California. She has been a civilian LAPD police academy instructor, 1993 Reserve Officer of the Year (for the Employee Assistance Unit) and civilian board member on LAPD disciplinary hearings, known as Boards of Rights. She is the co-author (with retired LAPD Sgt. II John C. Cooley) of Planning for the Unthinkable: A Law Enforcement Funeral Planning Guide.