ELIZABETH, NJ— The second installment of Walking the Beat, an on-going arts in-education residency, is being planned, announced Theo Perkins, founder of the Elizabeth Youth Theater Ensemble and a native of the city.
The project brings together Elizabeth High School students and police officers to help reinforce positive interactions between students and police officers that will improve future relationships. The project uses original written pieces and performances about their neighborhood, local heroes, and what their role can be in contributing to the community. EYTE is planning to use this program model and curriculum in other cities across the United States. It is presented by the city’s Office of Youth, and HBO’s Corporate Social Responsibility division, with support by Mayor J. Christian Bollwage and Police Director James Cosgrove.
“It is using art as a tool to help build trust,” explained Angela Kariotis, EYTE’s program facilitator and curriculum director. “It breaks down stereotypes, invests in relationships, and finds ways to have healthier interactions between young people and officers.”
The first stage of the project resulted in a film that was shown at the Thomas Jefferson Arts Academy last December. The second begins in July when a group of students and police officers will work together to create a performance that will be presented to the public September 6, 7, and 8.
For the officers involved, it is a chance to make a difference in the community they serve, and they routinely show up for four-hour rehearsals after working 11-hour shifts. Many of them have previously worked with youth. Officer Isa McClendon was formerly a juvenile detention officer, who always wanted to stay in contact with children. “The kids are the heartbeat,” she said. “They become adults, and, if they don’t trust us, their kids won’t trust us.”
Officer Anthony Jackson has worked with children since he was 16 as a staff member with the city’s Safe Haven program. “When this opportunity came up, I saw a chance to build a relationship. Now when I am working and I see the kids, they always say ‘hi.’”
Det. Darin Williamson, a 25-year member of the force and DARE facilitator, stated, “I have always been part of the community.”
Being seen as a member of the community that young people can turn to was the most important motivator for the officers. “It is good to give them a different outlook than what they see in the news, and they could get their own opinions,” said Officer Jaleesa McCray.
Added Det. Williamson, “It is not easy to get someone’s trust when they don’t trust the police. Many did not want to be in the same room with us. In the end, they didn’t want us to go.
“Some couldn’t stand the police in the beginning. Now they want to be officers. Some had no goals or dreams, but had them in the end. It became a fun thing in the end. We gave them some direction.”
More importantly, the officers want to prevent the kind of incidences that make national headlines. Said Officer McClendon, “We don’t have the issues that other areas have. Before we get to where it is out of hand, we have a platform that it doesn’t get out of control like the rest of the nation.”
Agreed Officer Jackson, “We want them to know we are here to help.”