SALT LAKE CITY — Since the start of the year, officers from the Salt Lake City Police Department have joined gym classes at several schools to get to know the students better. It’s all part of a new program focused on breaking down barriers between the cops and the community.
Police across the country have taken a lot of criticism in recent years for being too heavy-handed with the people they protect and serve. The Salt Lake program has been implemented to improve the relationships between officers and the people they serve.
“I’ve enjoyed it. I love it,” said Officer Monet Levicki, who played basketball with 5th and 6th graders at Backman Elementary in Rose Park Wednesday morning.
“I love coming out. I love seeing the kids not only in the school setting but when I get back out on patrol and they say ‘hi’ and they’re so excited to see you. It’s really rewarding,” she said.
Officer Levicki was the first police officer most of the kids at Backman Elementary have ever met. They’ve gotten to know her pretty well over the last few months.
“She just joins us and plays with us. It’s kind of fun,” said 6th grader Ulises Huerta.
That’s the goal of iCHAMPS, or Improving Community Health & Model Police Services, which is funded through state grants.
The Salt Lake City Police Department and Salt Lake City Schools have partnered to build relationships between officers and students in elementary and middle schools.
“It helps us develop a more humanized approach to community policing,” said Levicki.
The police officers, social workers with iCHAMPS, and the students have been breaking down assumptions that get in the way of understanding each other.
“I thought like police officers were strict,” said Ulises. “Now that I met her, she’s not that strict.”
“You see them on TV, and then when you see them in real life, it’s different,” said 5th grader Marely Ramirez.
More like friends, than stranger, or even enemies.
“It develops a relationship, so that they have trust in the police,” said Sgt. Brandon Shearer. “We want kids to be able to trust us. We’re there to help them, and we think this will help build some of the trust.”
From January through May, 5 officers joined iCHAMPS social workers to engage with more than 570 students in 13 schools.
This summer, iCHAMPS has worked with 210 students through the end of the week.
The teams help the kids develop life skills, like conflict resolution and resist drugs and gangs.
Moises Prospero founded the program to help the community where he lives.
“We humanize each other,” said Prospero. “So the youth, the families they start humanizing law-enforcement. They’re not the big, bad cop coming to arrest us anymore. They’re a resource, they’re somebody who can provide help because we care and we trust them now.”
We want kids to be able to trust us. We’re there to help them, and we think this will help build some of the trust.
–SLCPD Sgt. Brandon Shearer
The police start to see their beats differently, too.
“Not as a crime-ridden community, or the hood,” said Prospero. “But, actually as a positive, powerful, beautiful community that we’re learning from.”
He said the program helps the police become part of the community. Officer Levicki agreed.
“As the year progressed, it was wonderful because you would see a change,” she said. “They were so excited for you to come in and play with them.”
They shared hugs and high-fives, and stories about their families and lives.
When they survey the students before and after iCHAMPS activities, they see the difference.
The children state that they see the police officers in a different way and recognize that they are friendly resources in their neighborhoods.
“They care about us,” said Prospero. “So, I’m actually going to trust him now.”