Alex Culhane got out of the police vehicle and walked up to the driver’s side of a car he had pulled over. He looked at the driver and told him he had been speeding. He recorded his information, checked to see if he had had any prior violations or warrants and printed a piece of paper that served as a written warning.
He told the driver to slow down, be safe and go on his way.
But Alex isn’t a police officer. He’s a 10-year-old student at Rand Road Elementary School, participating in the Junior Officer of the Day program on Tuesday. And his traffic stop wasn’t real. Instead, it was part of a new program sponsored by the Garner Police Department.
Alex and a few other students, whose parents and friends paid for raffle tickets, got a chance to learn what it was like to be a police officer. The students learned about K-9 training, and saw the SRT (Special Response Team similar to a SWAT team) operate, learned how police pull over cars and took a tour of the new police station.
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Alex said he didn’t realize it took a lot skills and training to learn how to properly pull someone over.
He said he learned that: “A lot of people don’t like the police, but as the police you still have to do your job whether you like it or not.”
The purpose of the program, police Chief Brandon Zuidema said, is to show children a positive portrayal of the police and to develop relationships with them at a young age.
“There’s so much negative out there about the police on social media and in general public commentary that if they don’t hear otherwise, depending on who they are and who they are surrounded by and who they listen to, they might believe that and not have another opinion,” Zuidema said. “So what we want them to do is have an opportunity to ultimately as they become young adults, make an educated decision about the police. And hopefully what they’ll find is the negative things they are hearing aren’t their experience.”
He said the police department plans to host the Junior Officer of the Day program at least twice a year in the future. This was the first time the Garner Police Department hosted it.
“It’s been great and very educational, for me and my son,” Liz Duran said. “It serves the young. It gives them a good impression of police officers. In today’s world there’s a lot of negativity around police officers. And they are not all bad, so we want to see a good portrayal of them. Now they’re getting to be around hopefully some very good officers who have a lot of integrity and character, so they can not be afraid of police officers.”
The broken relationships between communities and their police departments have been at the forefront of nationwide discussions in recent years, after multiple police-officer-involved shootings came to light. Some as close as Durham sparked debate and protests in those communities.
The Junior Officer of the Day is one of many efforts the police department has taken on in recent years to nurture the relationship between the police department and the community. In 2015, the police department hosted discussions with different communities in Garner to get a sense of the community’s perceptions of the police.
“As you look at what’s going on in policing in general, we need to be proactive sometimes in showing the good in law enforcement,” Zuidema said. “And we have always been committed to the youth in Garner. You see that through our PAAL program and through our commitment to the schools. So we want to continue to reach out to children and to give them an opporunity to have positive interaction with the police.”
Garner PAAL, which stands for Police Athletics/Activities League, is a program focused on creating relationships and trust with youth through sports and other activities, thus dispelling the perception that “officers are the enemy” – particularly in communities of color – when they get older.
The idea is to have children from third grade grow up through the program and by the time they graduate and finish college, become public safety officers.