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Youth and Police Initiative offers insights, examples and answers

Theresa Friedrich, 16, center, and SPD Officer Traci Ponto, right, explain what they learned about each other during the Youth and Police Initiative program on Thursday. Officer Gordon Grant is at left. (Dan Pelle)
Theresa Friedrich, 16, center, and SPD Officer Traci Ponto, right, explain what they learned about each other during the Youth and Police Initiative program on Thursday. Officer Gordon Grant is at left. (Dan Pelle)

Cops have not been Theresa Friedrich’s friends in the past.

“It’s instinct, ya know. You’re born with it,” the teen said, shrugging her shoulders. “Cops show up at your door. They ask to come in. You say: You got a warrant?”

The 16-year-old’s attitude shifted after attending a weeklong Youth and Police Initiative hosted by the Spokane Police Department. Friedrich joined 11 other teens whose lives could be described as rocky, to say the least. The program’s goal is to create relationships between law enforcement and youth, help them recognize the consequences of their choices and teach some basic public speaking skills.

In return, the teenage participants get $80, but only if they fulfill the requirements of arriving on time for five nights sober and taking part in the activities.

The National American Family Institute developed the program 12 years ago for cities, focusing often on poor neighborhoods with lots of crime. Several police officers spend the week engaged with the teens, learning about their backgrounds and how they think. In return, the kids learn how police do their jobs.

Friedrich said she realized that “there’s more to cops than just harassing people. I didn’t know what they did all day.”

Said Adrian Barry, 17: “Next time I see cops, I’ll give them a chance that they are just doing their jobs.”

Police Chief Frank Straub brought the program to Spokane after witnessing its success in White Plains, N.Y., and Indianapolis.

“The program has been successful in many ways. It has created opportunities for police officers and young people to openly and honestly discuss issues such as race, violence and stereotyping,” Straub is quoted as saying on the National American Family Institute’s website.

This is the third time the department has participated. Spokane officers leading the program hope to host six weeklong sessions each year. Community leaders recommend the teens they think should participate in the Youth and Police Initiative.

Barry said his initial interest, besides the money, was to ask questions. For example, “Why are they so late to everything, like when you call?”

The teens worked on presentations about their choices at home, in their community, at school and with their friends. The group tested their public speaking skills on six patrol officers Thursday in preparation for Friday’s graduation.

“It was fascinating to me to see these kids with all different backgrounds, upbringings … interesting to see they had made goals for the week and achieved them,” said Officer Traci Ponto, who is assigned to patrol in the West Central neighborhood where all the participants live. “I was really impressed by all these kids standing up in front of all these strangers and talking about all these things.”

The veteran patrol officer admits all of them were pretty skeptical about the program. “After sitting through it, I was kind of sorry I hadn’t been part of the process. You get invested quickly,” she said. “You wish them nothing but the best. They got a lot of hurdles ahead of them.”

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