Two Boys & Girls Club members look on as James Johnson flips through a scrapbook from his time in the New York City Police Department.
With a warm smile, Johnson reaches down for a handshake.
“What did we learn?” he asks the young man. “Good! Eye contact.”
At the Alston Avenue Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club, where he serves as executive director, Johnson strives to create an atmosphere of mutual respect. He wants the children to feel valuable. Poverty, he says, is not just about a lack of material goods, but a lack of relationships.
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To the Durham Police Department, one relationship that is lacking is the relationship between police officers and the city’s children. On Jan. 13, police officers Michael Bonfiglio, Kristian Wheeler, Keith Crews and Everette Jeffries as well as investigator Thomas Scozzafava arrived at the club to hold the first positive police interaction workshop.
Through hypothetical situations and Q&A sessions, the police officers and children got to know each other.
“We wanted to make children see them as human,” said Johnson, who was a police officer in New York City for over 20 years.
“One kid even asked what kind of doughnuts we like,” said Bonfiglio. “We said Krispy Kreme.”
About 15 children between 10 and 12 years old attended the workshop, where among other things they learned not to be afraid of the police.
In 2014, Durham became the center of protests in North Carolina after 17-year-old Jesus Huerta died from self-inflicted gunshot in the back of a patrol car. Marches occurred in Durham in January and February. And after a grand jury announced in November that Ferguson, Missouri., police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, protests occurred in Durham almost weekly.
Children witnessed many of these demonstrations. Others saw them on the news.
Officer Kristian Wheeler, who grew up in Durham, participated in the workshop.
“We really want to evaluate where children are and meet them there,” she said.
Talking with the officers helped one 10-year-old boy realize that sometimes police officers can be afraid, too.
Afterward, he said, “I want to solve crime.”
Wheeler’s law enforcement aspirations also began in childhood.
“I’ve always wanted to be a cop,” she said. “It does make me feel good that I’m making somewhat of a difference – a small dent.”
The interaction workshop is not the only way the District 1 police unit is investing in the community’s children. More than 500 children have participated in the Durham Police Athletic League (PAL), in which officers coach basketball, soccer and baseball teams.
“We try to stay visible,” Jeffries said. “Our vision is to try to get the crime rate down.”
The Boys & Girls Club wants to be a part of that. As many assaults are gang-related, and children tend to join gangs around the ages of 12 and 13, the target workshop age group is 10 to 12-year-olds. Officer Crews, a Durham native, hopes the workshop helps the children understand who the police are and where they come from.
“These are my brothers and sister,” Johnson said of the participating officers.
The skills Johnson developed as a police officer prepared him for his role at the Boys and Girls Club. While he was with the NYPD, he started a chapter of Law Enforcement Explorers, a program designed to build relationships between police officers and children. Johnson said the chapter reached over 3,000 children.
Growing up in the same high-crime area he worked in, Johnson developed an understanding of what young people from similar areas are going through. He said children fear police officers because they lack relationships, relationships that can open doors for mentorship.
“The value of being a prince is to learn what kings do,” Johnson said. “Man means responsibility. Who is a better example than law enforcement?”
Amber is a UNC public relations major from Burlington serving as a writer-reporter for the Durham VOICE.