O’Connor: Police, elementary school program should be expanded across New York state

Police officers often represent the thin blue line between right and wrong and New York City has created an effective new program to help youth living in high-crime areas walk that thin line.

Set to roll out later this month, the city’s Department of Education Team Up! initiative will help foster much-needed bonds between children and local law enforcement when public-police relations couldn’t be much worse. Instead of resenting or rebelling against authority, kids should look to officers as role models as soon as they enter elementary school and this program is the perfect way to start it off right.

The project will span across 350 New York City elementary schools and involve 72 police precincts to teach kids about the various duties of a police officer as well as give children the tools to become a leader in their community. The rationale is to cultivate friendships between law enforcement and children through activities such as arts and crafts and reading.

Because Team Up! will reportedly not come with any extra expense to the city, a similar plan should be expanded across New York state, especially in cities like Syracuse where gang activity is prevalent and crime rates are high. By showing the police in a positive light when children are most impressionable, Syracuse schools could help break down the lack of understanding surrounding officers and humanize them. Through programs like Team Up!, children would be able to learn to respect the authority of the police and turn away from pressures to commit crimes.

Syracuse ranks eighth out of all cities in New York when it comes to violent crime, according to a 2013 FBI report. That high of a rate leaves a bad impression on the city without taking into account the existing strained relationships between neighborhoods and the police officers attempting to serve them. The Syracuse Police Department is currently trying to bridge the gap between the two to try and change the negative perceptions the public may have.

Syracuse police have a similar program to D.A.R.E., SPD public information officer Sgt. Richard Helterline said in an email, adding that SPD also has a community policing unit, “where the officers assigned there handle the day-to-day community complaints.”

“We feel that the more the community understands the police function that we are serving, the better the relationships will be,” Helterline said.

While violent crime in Syracuse was at a 25-year low as of 2015, according to There’s still plenty of room for improvement. Any form of additional, positive outreach from Syracuse’s law enforcement has the potential to reduce gang-related and other senseless acts of violence, especially if it can occur in a relaxed setting. Kids will be more resistant to gang influence if they are taught to obey the law, lead through example and understand how police officers have the community’s best interests in mind — all goals that can be accomplished with initiatives like Team Up!.

For once, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has done right by police by supporting this program and not turning his back on the department. There have been too many national instances of police killings that have fractured predominantly African-American communities and New York is no stranger to that controversy.

Personally, the benefits of an open dialogue between officers and their residential areas of work were apparent when I attended my local elementary school in River Vale, New Jersey. As a young kid, having officers visit classrooms to speak with students about important issues, such as drugs, made me believe in the police’s message. They were there to protect the community and the best way I could help them keep me safe was by displaying courtesy and level-headedness.

The New York City education department made a great decision to place police officers into schools for learning purposes — a plan that should be extended to the rest of the state. Building a relationship between children and those who protect them can change the downward slope of police relations in the country. By instilling admiration and proper values in their youth, cities like Syracuse could get a head start on eliminating crime and paving the way for a safer community in the future.

Kyle O’Connor is a sophomore sport management major and political science minor. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at


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