COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – As the Columbus Division of Police grapples with community relations, calls for reform, and a surge in youth violence, the department is hoping to build trust one middle school student at a time.
Friday, the Teens and Police Service (TAPS) program hosted its first Summit Day to celebrate the latest group of participants. The mentorship initiative partners “at-risk” youth with police officers for weekly learning sessions, including drug and violence prevention, conflict resolution, and law enforcement basics. Some of the students choose to join the program, while others are selected by school staff because of their home life or behavior.
“I didn’t want to be in it… because you’re in a room with a bunch of cops and it’s just like cringe,” said Sivana Miller, an eighth-grade student at Yorktown Middle School.
“I went because my mom made me,” added Keniyah Banks, another Yorktown eighth-grade student. “I didn’t like the police, not one bit. I’m sorry, I really didn’t. But [my mentors] — I love them to death. Man, they’re the best to be around.”
The two friends said they not only grew to respect the officers they met, but their TAPS lessons taught them about the risks of some of their behaviors.
“They just changed my whole perspective of everything I used to do,” Banks explained. “I stopped doing a lot of stuff because [I learned] this could happen, this could lead up to this… and I could end up where my dad is right now.”
Many of the TAPS officers come from backgrounds similar to the teens they’re mentoring.
Officer George White, a 17 year veteran of CPD, said he can impart knowledge on the students while also humanizing police officers.
“I’ve had some hard times coming up as a kid. And I know if I can make it, and with the right people around you, then they can make it as well,” White said.
Teachers recalled students who would have likely dropped out of school without the structure and positive influence of the TAPS program. Lisa Norris, an intervention specialist at Dominion Middle School, said many of the children considered ‘at risk’ simply need encouragement and direction.
“It’s super, super motivating and powerful as a teacher and really encouraging as a parent and community member that we’re sending kids out into those arenas prepared and successful and confident,” she said.
The pandemic forced much of the previous year’s TAPS programming online, with virtual meetings and web-based lessons. Friday, the students enjoyed hands-on seminars practicing traffic stops, exploring police vehicles, and interacting with small groups.
Some of the formerly reluctant participants said they now encourage their peers to join the program.
“It’s definitely worth it,” Miller said. “[The mentors] treat you like you’re their own kid. They love you, they respect you in all different kinds of ways. They’re not going to judge you.”
Close to 100 students from Columbus City Schools took part in the Summit Day Friday. Many of the officers mentoring TAPS students are also CCS graduates.