Vol. 81, No. 4Panel discussion

Young woman speaking in a room while gesturing her hands.

What’s the best way for police to connect with kids?

Since young people are constantly checking their social media, having ads and posts that catch their eye can be educational without them even knowing it, says Jessica Redmond. Credit: RCMP

Whether it's a harassing text, an abusive relationship or a dangerous drug habit, young people need the help of someone they can trust. But the first step is reaching out. We asked two RCMP officers and two young people for their take on what works — and what doesn't — when it comes to keeping kids and teens safe.

The panelists:

  • Cst. Jean-Philippe Dupont, Youth Section, Burnaby detachment, British Columbia
  • Jessica Redmond, National Youth Advisory Committee participant, Charlottetown, P.E.I.
  • Adam Burns, RCMP Community Programs Officer, Bridgetown, N.S.
  • Sophia Iligan, National Youth Advisory Committee participant, Edmonton, Alta.

Cst. Jean-Philippe Dupont

To connect with the youth in Burnaby, B.C., we started to hold regular movie nights at the community police office. To attract them, we offered a lot of "good" food and a wide variety of movies.

Contrary to what people might think, we wear our full police uniform during these events because we want young people to feel comfortable approaching officers when in need. These positive interactions in uniform can help with that.

After the movies, we see kids with their chocolate-covered smiles speaking highly of the RCMP officers in their community. Recently, while in a part of Burnaby often plagued with gangs and crime, I was approached by a mother of two who wanted to thank us for the work we were doing with the youth. At times, it's hard for people to know when someone truly cares but children can see when you're being genuine.

One of the best ways of reaching young people is to give them something they might like.

For younger children, we give them RCMP stickers, listen to their stories and answer some questions. They quickly come to trust us.

With the teenagers, or even adults, we adapt our approach. Instead of stickers, we will give them something they like. We find with teenagers, food usually works great!

We spend some time listening to them, asking about themselves and sharing our own stories.

We show our openness by answering their questions frankly. Most youth already know the information we are telling them — what they miss is perspective. They need a trusting adult to give them that perspective.

The few lines of the Youth Criminal Justice Act state that police officers should "take reasonable steps to prevent youth crime by addressing its underlying causes, to respond to the needs of the young persons, and to provide guidance and support..."

We can't spend one-on-one time with every person, but doing it once in a while helps build rapport and an officer's reputation in their community.

A lot of young people have reached out to me because they heard from friends that I "was different" and that they could trust me.

I think it's because I usually tell them this: "I know everyone has a reason for doing what they do, and I'm not going to judge your reasons, but we need to deal with the harmful behaviours."

An officer who gives teens a stern warning is similar to the doctor who tells his insomniac patient they should get some sleep: it doesn't fix the root cause of the behaviour.

Instead, I try to find out their reasons for doing something, then I tell them the reasons why I don't do it. I find that when I'm real with them, they're real with me.

Jessica Redmond

One of the strongest connections within any community should be between police and youth.

Since taking part in the RCMP National Youth Advisory Committee and attending the youth summit in Ottawa, I've gained a better understanding of how police can strengthen these bonds.

Officers need to ensure that they're not only being noticed in each community, but that they're making an effort to connect with young people. Creating that bond can take time but, if it's done the right way, trust will be gained.

Taking the time to interact with kids and teens helps them to realize that you're trustworthy and dependable. Small things — like shooting hoops with them or just asking them about their day — can make a huge difference. This will change their point of view from being nervous when police officers are around, to being excited when they come into the community.

When there isn't a strong police presence, youth are more likely to become involved in dangerous activities such as drugs, bullying, violence and exploitation. Having police in communities gives kids another opportunity to talk to a trusted adult about things they're unsure about, like drugs for example, and a person who they can count on.

Prince Edward Island is the leading province in substance and alcohol abuse among youth. There are some presentations and information in the school systems about substance abuse but

there needs to be more.

If officers can give these youth presentations with real-life, eye-opening examples, it would be much more powerful than a simple talk.

Providing information that will always be in the back of their mind can help to steer them down the right path.

Using social media is critical. Since youth are constantly checking their social media, like Facebook and Instagram, having ads and posts that catch the eye and are attractive can be educational without them even knowing it.

Incorporating subjects that youth are interested in makes it easier for them to watch the entire ad and not skip over it or keep scrolling by. Child exploitation is on the rise and showing the risks on social media where they are most active, can help keep them safer.

One thing I would like to see is giving youth who want to pursue a career in policing a chance to shadow an officer. This is something that I would have loved to do when I was younger. A shadowing opportunity could show a young person what responsibility is and how staying on the right path — away from people they shouldn't be around and illegal activities — can give them the best opportunities in life.

Adam Burns

Youth are in a constant battle between making the right and wrong choices. Staying positive and making appropriate decisions can be very hard to do. When a young person has no one to turn to and a lack of education or information, poor decisions often result.

The RCMP has an opportunity to fill some of those gaps by helping youth make smarter, informed decisions, and to be a voice of reason when they're in need.

It's very difficult for kids and teens to navigate all of today's risks while receiving an education. Our avenue for building relationships to help them with everyday struggles starts and ends with pro-active engagement. This positive rapport-building allows us to make connections and create successful working relationships.

Putting ourselves out there and taking those extra few minutes to have positive interactions with youth is key. For RCMP Community Programs Officers and School Safety Resource Officers, this means making the effort after in-school presentations to talk with the classrooms, visit at recess or lunch, and help with breakfast programs.

Developing this relationship at the elementary level makes the process much easier. Whenever we visit an elementary school, we try to stay for recess or lunch. Students always run toward us and want to talk — in our profession, that's a good thing!

In Annapolis County, we have two resources who spend most of their time in the schools. They are known by the students on a first-name basis, and have cultivated a level of trust within the schools. By nurturing this trust level — through presentations, programming and general interactions — we've found that youth reach out to us with their troubles or issues.

These students go home and pass on that positive interaction to family and friends — the benefits of which can't be overstated.

When dealing with situations that may come up at the schools, we use them as teachable moments. Officers spend the time to come up with alternative measures, help the young person deal with the root cause of a problem and provide the resources they may need for follow-up.

One program we have in place is called Schools Plus, where we can take a youth's profile and advocate for them to receive various resources available through the school board, mental health and addictions. This program helps us create an environment for the youth to succeed.

As I said, I believe that engagement is key. Yes, it takes time. However, the trust gained and the rapport created goes a long way.

Taking that time to stop the car and say "Hi" to a kid on the street, drop by local rinks or gyms to catch a bit of a game, or deal with a situation as a teachable moment, has real value.

When we engage, youth are more likely to heed our messaging on drugs, impaired driving, cyber bullying and so on. Taking the time saves time down the road.

Sophia Iligan

From my perspective, many youth today have a negative notion about the RCMP or police services in general, possibly due to a bad history or poor first impressions with them.

I believe that the best way to connect with young people is to rekindle the relationship between police and kids. To feel safe with police officers, we need to build trust between us.

I find that it's easier to build a connection and trust with someone if they're my friends. I feel like if we built our relationship with the police as friends instead of "trusted adults," it would help us become more comfortable in approaching them.

One way to do that would be for police to sponsor and engage in youth events — whether it's a meet-and-greet with local police or a monthly basketball game together. Actively interacting with young people will help them get to know their local officers and, in turn, police can get to know youth in their community.

In terms of convincing kids to do what's right and safe for them, it would be more powerful to have the officer's advice turn into a question or a statement while providing data alongside it.

For example, with drug and substance use, having a 15-second video showcasing a teenager's reaction after being peer pressured, providing statistics on how many youth are affected, then ending the video with the question "Is this the kind of influence you want to make?" or even a statement like, "Before you try, think about the consequences." This helps us think twice before doing something we might regret.

Rewording advice into questions and statements lets young people have a choice and allows us to think for ourselves about serious consequences instead of having to listen to advice that we may not want to take.

Advertisements on social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook are very influential, especially when the content is eye-catching and short.

These days, a lot of youth have short awareness spans so it's best to convey everything within 15 seconds, then have the resources or a link at the end or in the caption to lead us to more information. This creates an efficient connection.

Presenting statistics and data on youth crime in classrooms and on orientation days, as well as providing resources on how to help, would grab attention. It's also important for police to convey on both social media platforms and in live presentations what they do for youth and how they do their best to help.

Getting feedback through surveys about how officers can best engage with young people and build trust could really help rekindle our relationships — slowly, but surely.

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