Building A Bridge Between Police and Teens

Barbara A. Schwartz

Author’s note: I am alive and thriving today because two officers took an interest in me when I was 14 years old. Paying back what Larry Hancock and Leo Paul Miller did for me is the reason I support officers and have volunteered to write for the Badge & Gun for the past 20 years. Officers are, and will always be, my heroes. Please know that as an officer, you have the power to make a difference in a young person’s life.

The Teen and Police Service (TAPS) Academy held their second annual conference on April 17th hosted by the University of Houston at Clear Lake (UHCL).

The TAPS Academy involves an 11-week program designed to bring at risk teens and police officers together through a curriculum that includes: bullying, staying out of gangs, sexting, dating violence, safe driving, and much more.

TAPS academies grew from a collaboration between UHCL Dr. Everette Penn, a professor of Criminology, and then Houston Police Department Assistant Chief, and now retired, Brian Lumpkin.

Funded by a Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services grant, the TAPS Academy rolled out at HISD’s Beechnut Academy in January 2012. The TAPS program has expanded to El Paso County and Galveston in Texas; Columbus, Ohio; Tampa, Florida; Ponce, Puerto Rico; and to St. Kikks and Nevis in the Leeward Islands. Dallas and Washington, D.C. are planning future academies.

TAPS programs defer from DARE and PAL by targeting, as Prof. Penn states, “those least likely to interact with police and those who are most at risk.” By going into the high schools, Penn explains that TAPS reaches students during the most crime prone years.

Students attended the conference from Houston, Spring, and Galveston ISDs including the following high schools: Lee, Sam Houston, Westbury, Law Enforcement Magnet, La Marque, Westview, Ball, Houston Can Academy, among others; and teens from the Harris County Juvenile Probation Youth Village. Cadets from HPD and the Law Enforcement High School Explorer Posts attended and assisted with the conference.

Gathering in the UHCL’s auditorium, participants were welcomed by Houston Police Officer Myra Daniels. Executive Assistant Chief M.A. Dirdan opened the ceremonies by telling the students that the officers came to listen to them. Chief Dirdan challenged the teens to use “their bright young minds to make a difference.”

Students proceeded to break out sessions which included: Police Interaction/Conflict Resolution taught by HPD’s Treva Mott and Denito Berry. Jan Arceneaux from HPD’s Public Information Office (PIO) and Medwin Wallace from HPD’s Special Victims Unit taught sessions on Dating and Domestic Violence. Anthony Valle from HPD’s PIO office taught Bullying, Richard Buitron from HPD’s Clear Lake Crime Prevention Unit taught Safe Driving, and Lewis Jackson of the Galveston PD taught Career Planning.

Students raised poignant questions–asking why unarmed people had been shot and why people were shot in the back. Officers addressed these issues and explained the realities of armed encounters.

Lumpkin and Prof. Penn led a special session on TAPS Club leadership where students were encouraged to establish clubs in their schools.

TAPS Clubs, which meet monthly, sustain the relationships developed between students and police in the 11-week academy and are student led, organized, and taught.

In their presentation, Lumpkin and Penn acknowledged that teens don’t feel heard, that they don’t feel they are treated fairly by police, and that teens tend not to complain when they have been victimized.

Lumpkin discussed the Chad Holley incident and students responded by saying that the media doesn’t always get the story straight.

Lumpkin spoke about “police legitimacy” and offered ways teens and police could gain a better understanding, eliminate mistrust, and build confidence in each other.

The Lumpkin Challenge

At the end of the presentation, Lumpkin offered a challenge: Any student who could, using their phone, get the necessary permissions and commitments from their principal, parent, and an officer in their school’s beat to set up a club in the ten minutes before the end of the session would receive a nice, crisp twenty dollar bill.

Students went into action. Texts and calls were exchanged. Lumpkin juggled several cell phones as he verified that the students had obtained the permissions and approvals necessary for initiating a club.

By the end of the session, Lumpkin’s wallet was a hundred dollars lighter. Laughing off the hit to his bank account, Lumpkin stated that getting the clubs up and running was well worth his personal investment.

TAPS Academy, Clubs Lauded 

Lee High School principal Jonathan Trinh supports the TAPS Academy concept because it targets teens being recruited for gangs. He said that his school had an Explorer Post for those interested in police careers, but nothing to bring at risk students and police together. TAPS Academy and Clubs have done that–successfully.

Ball High School Criminal Justice teacher and former DPS trooper, Renard Brown, found the conference inspiring, especially the student leadership aspect of the programs.

Emma, a student, felt the conference showed the importance of face-to-face communication. She said that her generation had become too reliant on texting. She heralded the TAPS Academy and Club concept of getting teens and cops together, face-to-face, to communicate.

Lumpkin pointed out that as a result of the TAPS Academy and Clubs teens who used to run when they saw a police car round the corner now waved to the officers who patrol near their schools and know the officers by their first names.

The Handshake

The essence of the conference and the goals of the TAPS programs were evident when a white male officer shook the hand of an African-American male teen to say goodbye after sharing lunch together.

With that handshake, many bridges were crossed and the goals of the conference realized.

For more information on the TAPS Academies and Clubs visit their website at: www.tapsacademy.org.