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The Cops and Kids Foundation
Most children enjoy learning fun sports like fishing, archery, and bowling but not every child gets the chance to have a cop as a teacher. The Cops and Kids Foundation in Wisconsin was started by Bob Kraemer to give just that opportunity to children in the greater Milwaukee area.
A retired police officer himself, Kraemer understands that a police officer receives a mixture of reactions from the community, including anything from respect to fear. Assigned to the position of community officer in 2001 for the police department at which he worked, Kraemer took on the responsibility of fostering good relations between the police and the community.
“We had a mayor who really wanted us to do more involvement with the community because most of the time, the interaction that people have with police officers are in a negative situation,” explains Kraemer.
The first thing he wanted to do was change the way people perceived the police officers. “A lot of times kids start off right away thinking the police are the enemy so we thought we'd try and do something to break down those barriers.”
So Kraemer began creating programs that would include children and parents alike in getting to know the officers of their local police department. This led him to create the Cops and Kids Foundation in 2010, which now works with five police departments and their local communities.
“Our main programs are Cops and Bobbers, that's our youth fishing program for ages 7 and up; our bowling program is called Gutter Busters from ages 6 and up; our archery program is Badges and Bullseyes and that's for 7 and up,” says Kraemer.
The programs that run in each area depend on the local facilities but are always free. If there is no local lake for fishing, there will be a bowling alley or archery range. But even in communities that might not have a lake, bowling alley or archery range, Kraemer says the activity itself doesn’t matter: “you could do volleyball if you had to, or after-school basketball.”
The Cops and Kids Foundation also provides one-on-one mentorship for children who want to be mentored by a police officer, and they do danger-stranger testing for children and parents to be aware of everyday dangers and how to prevent dangerous situations.
Since Kraemer began the programs in 2001, “two thousand kids have gone through [them] ... and since our Foundation started in 2010, we've had four hundred kids come through so the numbers are pretty high already,” says Kraemer.
The programs give children the chance to see that police officers are not always to be feared and build up a connection with and respect for the officers. This helps the kids trust the police much more and ensures that they are much less likely to find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Kraemer also makes sure that he helps those children who have already had minor run-ins with the police. He works closely with the local court system and district attorney to find out if anyone needs help.
When a judge tells Kraemer about someone who needs his help, “they have to hang out with myself and the other officers for a year,” says Kraemer. “If they do that, then a lot of times, their charges are dropped. Although their fines and damages, let's say if they smashed a mail box or something, they still have to pay restitution, but then they don't have the record.”
This aids in creating an atmosphere where children are more comfortable talking to cops when there’s a problem affecting them. “With programs like this, we’re able to get out proactively,” says Waukesha County District Attorney, Brad Schimel.
“We've had a number of kids who have come forward to … school resource officers, to officers they've met in programs like this, to report problems in their life that they never would have revealed to anybody else and we've been able to solve crimes that way.”
Far from helping just the children, the Cops and Kids Foundation also benefits the police officers. “Just putting handcuffs on people all day is difficult,” says Schimel. “It brings you down if you're not seeing positives. Frankly, this kind of work, it wears at you when you're day in, day out, seeing people doing bad things.”
Servando Benitez, an officer of the Waukesha County Police Department explains that, "In my job, a lot of times, when you interact with kids, it's doing a call where usually an incident happens and someone gets arrested, which, in some way, can give law enforcement a bad image."
He wanted to find a way of getting to know the kids in his community better to change that image and the Cops and Kids Foundation was perfect for that. "I was looking more to interact with kids, trying to relate them so that they could see that we're just like anybody else, they can talk to us and interact with us like one of their friends."
The Cops & Kids Foundation is a good way for the police officers themselves to see that not all those in the community are those they have to caution or arrest. “You can forget sometimes that the vast majority of people out there are positive people who want to do good things and are doing good things,” says Schimel, “because all we see day-in and day-out, if all you do is focus on busting the bad guys ... is the bad, and you've got to see the good.”
The parents, too, gain a better sense of the people protecting their neighborhoods, who their children are spending time with. “If you don't have the parents really knowing the officers, then that's not a good thing,” explains Kraemer, “so this way, they come into the police department, they sign up their kids, they meet officers at the front desk.”
The programs are not only great fun for the kids but they clearly have an effect on the way they perceive the police and live their lives. Kraemer says that “kids that asked for recommendations from me as a police officer to go to college, to go into the military. They still come back and volunteer now. They'll stop by my house and we'll play cards, so I know it works.”
Having previous students return to volunteer is a great benefit to the program. “I think that the kids listen better to them than they do some of us older officers because we're just like their parents, we're telling them the same old thing that they're probably used to hearing all the time,” says Kraemer.
For those kids who don’t feel particularly connected to the older officers, the younger volunteers who have “been through it all, done the mistakes and then [are] on the right path” are there to help.
“It really, really works well for the kids and they begin to trust the officers and it's good for the officers. They get to know some of these kids that they thought maybe they had a bad situation, they're really good kids, they just need a little direction.”
Kraemer’s dedication to bringing communities together is clear, and doing so in such a fun way is having a positive impact on everyone involved. He wants the Cops and Kids Foundation to keep growing to include more police departments and more children. The best rewards come simply from seeing the children enjoy themselves.
“Just watch the smiles on their face and the joy that they have - and that makes my day. I probably have just as much fun as the kids do.”