The warning “stranger danger” is making a comeback.
So are lessons in “good touch, bad touch.”
Police departments in the District and elsewhere are dusting off old curriculums and reviving the “Officer Friendly” program, an effort to promote a gentler and more approachable image of a cop.
D.C. police launched its version Tuesday to youngsters at Miner Elementary School in Northeast Washington. There were familiar slogans coupled with new, sometimes more complicated ideas.
A warning about drugs was front and center, and the “good touch, bad touch” session referenced sexual assault. McGruff the Crime Dog was there, of course, but so was a new addition to help teach the do’s and dont’s of 911 — Sally the Cell Phone.
D.C. Officer Tracy D. Taylor, a 28-year veteran, who had no Officer Friendly when he grew up in Maryland, led students at Miner in the Officer Friendly pledge, in which they promised to “make the right choices” and “make a difference in my world.” Demonstrating an example from one lesson plan, Taylor had a boy stand next to Codi Prather, 8. The officer asked the young audience, “If he pushed her, is that a good touch or a bad touch?” The crowd shouted, “Bad touch.”
Police Chief Peter Newsham said bringing back Officer Friendly was the No. 1 request made at community crime meetings.
The program, which began in the late 1960s and was introduced in the District in the 1970s, seemed to fizzle out more than a decade ago, replaced by other community policing models, such as the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs.
In some ways, the program harks back to a nostalgic era of old-time beat cops pounding the pavement as they walked, nightstick in hand, knowing every kid on the block by nickname and reputation. Officer Friendly visited schools and gave lessons on how kids should be careful talking to strangers and resolve conflict without hitting.
There are new challenges now, such as an increased awareness of sexual assault and the fear of gunmen storming schools. Students in some city schools go home to violent neighborhoods, where police are not well regarded. Even the terms have gotten more complicated. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children advises against using the term “stranger danger,” saying it is too simplistic to cover present-day threats and is misleading because the group says the risks to children are greatest from people they know.
Law enforcement nationwide also is trying to find new ways to improve its image amid instances of police brutality, questionable shootings by officers, and violent arrests that have led in some instances to protests and riots and left lingering questions about conduct and fairness.
Many departments have returned to various community policing plans to work to rebuild trust in their communities. Baltimore and Chicago are among the other departments bringing back Officer Friendly.
The challenge, Newsham said, is to get people to understand that Officer Friendly is not one person, but rather every officer on the force. “We want them to know that when they see the uniform,” he said, “it’s supposed to represent hope and safety, not fear and oppression.”
To Newsham, Officer Friendly is every officer who stops to kick a ball with a kid, changes a flat tire, helps find a missing person and gives someone directions. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said that “every officer has been painted with one kind of picture showing what policing is by negative events. We need to remind people of all the thousands of positive interactions there are.”
Crystal Davis, who attended Miner Elementary and had a child who also attended, said it will be difficult for police to change the perception of children who see negative interactions with police in their communities. “I think they need to be more sensitive to their neighborhood,” Davis said. “A lot of these children are scared of the police or scared of saying something to the police.”
Uniyah Campbell, 10, a fifth-grader, said she had never heard of Officer Friendly before Tuesday. “He’s really inspiring,” she said. “He teaches kids what to do when something is bad.”
And Uniyah knew exactly what do with her new lesson when she got home. “Today, I’m going to tell my little brother what’s a good touch and what’s bad touch,” she said, “because I think he should learn that.”