In Classrooms, City Cops Aim to Improve Relations With Teens

New Brunswick police officers talk to students at New Brunswick High School. Credits: New Brunswick Police Department/Facebook

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Like in many cities, the relationship between New Brunswick’s police force and residents has appeared strained at times.

But a new partnership between the police department, City Hall and the public school district aims to both strengthen the bond between cops and residents and teach high school sophomores about constitutional law. The initiative brings cops into the classroom to teach, socialize and act out different real-world scenarios with students.

“It is not intended to be a one-time, short-term type of relationship,” Mayor Jim Cahill said in a video published by his administration. “This is really building a community and building a police department that have mutual respect for one another.”

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To some degree, the program is an attempt to help each side understand each other, the mayor said.

Feelings of tension and mistrust between police and those who live here have deep roots.

Following the Ferguson shooting in 2014, residents rallied against police brutality, dredging up some of New Brunswick’s own history. In 2011, for instance, protests ignited after a cop shot and killed Barry Deloatch, a 25-year-old who is said to have attacked an officer with a wooden board. Shootings of two unarmed African-American residents in 1991 and 1996 have also sparked outrage in the city.

Looking back to the 1967 riots in New Brunswick, academics attribute the explosion of unrest by some in the African-American community in part to “mistreatment by police.”

Even now, some residents have taken to the streets, worried that city police may eventually assist with or participate in federal immigration raids. While Cahill has promised that won’t happen, protesters have said they fear the matter could erode immigrants’ trust of police.

In the recent City Hall video, New Brunswick Police Lt. Daniel Dominguez is shown leading a discussion with students.

“You haven’t had many police experiences. You all look like great kids,” he told them. “Your preconceived notions are probably from experiences that you heard about somebody, through somebody else who had an experience with a police officer.”

In elementary school, students go through the DARE program, which is designed to help them resist drugs, booze and violence. That also puts them in direct contact with police officers.

Until now, no similar course has existed for older students, New Brunswick Public Schools Superintendent Aubrey Johnson said.

“They start to see things, and sometimes influence can shape their beliefs,” he added. “It’s very important now that we try and build a bridge.”

The superintendent said he believes that bridge between cops and residents already exists, but this program will “enhance” it.

New Brunswick Police Lt. Raymond Trigg is shown in the video acting out a scenario in which he and a colleague are called to a deli for a noise complaint.

In the first rendition, the students don’t abide by the officer’s commands to turn the music down and things end poorly. In the second play-through, the kids follow police orders and everyone walks away shaking hands.

“Some of the students were actually nervous,” Trigg said. “They get the feeling and feel what we feel when we’re out there on the street.”

For now, the program runs only in U.S. history I courses, which are usually composed of sophomores. Officers interact with students and discuss the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

School and city officials expect to expand the program into U.S. history II later this year, bringing in high-school juniors.

A handful of kids appear in the video to discuss their experiences in the class. One girl named Jessica praises Trigg for his attitude and ability to teach her and her peers.

Come 10 years from now, the program—and the cops who teach it—will likely reach thousands of students, Cahill said.

At a meeting earlier this month, the City Council approved a $7,350 contract with South and Associates of North Brunswick to further develop a curriculum for the initiative.

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