MOUNT VERNON — Thursday’s sunshine and gentle breeze formed the perfect backdrop for fresh air, fun, and friendships. And that’s the goal behind PAK United, an initiative that brings together youths and Mount Vernon police officers in a positive atmosphere.

PAK (Police and Kids) United kicked off its program with, appropriately, a kickball game on the soccer field at Mount Vernon Nazarene University.

“We had such a good turnout,” said Lt. Andy Burns. “We had close to 40. It’s so exciting.

“We wanted to simply get kids out of their rooms and outside,” he said of the idea behind PAK United. “As we started to research it, people not only thought it was a good idea, but we received a lot of support.

“We have a very different relationship in this community. Where other cities saw police stations burned or stormed, we saw partnership with the community.”

Patrolman Jeremiah Armstrong is the School Resource Officer with the Mount Vernon Middle School, high school, and Knox County Career Center. He spends a lot of time with students, talking and giving presentations — and participating in gym classes.

“That’s where I can really connect,” he said.

He says a lot of kids recognize him because of his experiences with their parents. Unfortunately, that first interaction is frequently negative.

“Being in the school and being able to interact with them on a daily basis is huge,” he said.

Armstrong first met some of the students as sixth-graders. Now, they’re in high school.

“I’ve always felt there’s something the kids have needed in the community,” he said. “This past year was hard … there have been a lot of struggles.”

Armstrong said the concept for PAK United hit home for him when he met brothers who were living in a motel because their mom was evicted from their home.

“After school they were trapped in their hotel room,” he said. “I went to Lt. Burns with the idea to throw some activities together.”

With the support of Burns and Police Chief Robert Morgan, the idea started to come together.

“This is growing, and I really feel like this will make a big difference to the kids in the summer time,” Armstrong said.

The activities won’t be limited to summer, though. Armstrong plans to expand to year-round events.

“Now we’ve got fishing, basketball, geocaching. I would like to expose the kids to something other than just sports,” he said.

“Even if we have to scale it back, we’ll do something,” Burns added. “It gets these kids out of an environment where they might be trapped.”

Burns said that more than 4 million 16-year-olds have face-to-face interaction with police every year.

“While a positive experience predicts a positive view of the police, a negative intervention predicts a negative view of the police,” he said.

“Seniors who were sixth-graders, these are kids who grew up knowing Jeremiah Armstrong.”

Burns said the success rate is very high for programs like PAK United. They reduce recidivism and create a better relationship with people in the community.

What do other youth-police interaction programs look like?

The programs take many forms. In Arlington, Texas, the police department partnered with the school athletic department. Through Coach 5-0, officers participate in games, practices, and workouts with the students.

Prince George’s County in Maryland offers Badges for Baseball, developed by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and the U.S. Department of Justice. In Mansfield, officers and youth interact through the Police Athletic League.

Several years ago, the Elgin Police Department in Elgin, Illinois, started Kids United. Sgt. Rick DeMierre said that while the agency pays for some of the cost, Elgin Township primarily funds the program through a $20,000 grant.

“We have upward of 70 kids,” DeMierre told Knox Pages. “We have seven SROs [school resource officers] who attend the events with the kids, so they are well chaperoned.”

The department also has a resident officer program, where officers live in the neighborhood in homes paid for by the department.

“That gives the community a personal presence; they have their own personal police officer to reach out to,” DeMierre said. “The officers can reach out to the kids in need of something to do, and they know the parents who are looking to get their kids involved.

“The police officers pretty much become mentors to the kids,” he added.

Kids United runs from the end of the school year through Aug. 3, which is National Night Out. Activities include ice skating (the department reserves a rink), attending a local Medieval Times production, a White Sox game, and swimming at a neighboring swim complex.

Because of the large number of youths, they’re typically split into two groups: The younger ones ice skate in the morning, the older ones in the afternoon, for example.

“We utilize the resident officers to assist the SROs,” DeMierre said.

Other activities include “drop ins,” an event where officers drop in to a school and hand out ice cream as the kids are leaving; a five-week soccer tournament where the winning team heads to a Chicago Fire game; and fishing, with Cabella’s donating 40 fishing poles.

In terms of hard statistics showing the success of Kids United relating to decreased truancy or similar issues, DeMierre said he wasn’t sure if they were there.

“I don’t know about numbers,” the 30-year veteran said. “What I do know is it provides the ability to build that positive atmosphere with the kids. They’re swimming and ice skating with the police officers. That’s a positive impact, and it gives the kids something to do in the summer instead of running around the streets.”

DeMierre said the program provides a more positive direction for the kids to be involved in and helps them experience things they’re not able to experience otherwise.

“I think it’s a positive impact with police, but it’s also having a positive role model they can come back and talk to later,” he said. “The bond it builds not just as a police officer but also as a mentor is priceless.”

In a parallel community outreach, the police department hosts several events in partnership with local businesses, including the slushie competition. Each red slushie requested at the local McDonald’s locations is a point for the fire department; each blue slushie requested is a point for the police department. The winner’s union donates $500 to a local charity; the local McDonald’s owner matches the donation.

“Our administration opened the book for us,” DeMierre said. “They said ‘you guys tell us what you want to do.’”

DeMierre said he measures the success of the community outreach by the community’s reaction to recent officer-involved shootings.

“All of the communities that surround us had a lot of damage, rioting,” he said. “We had protests, but they were peaceful. And the reason is because we have this involvement with the community.”

PAK United Lt Burns Patrolman Jeremiah Armstrong

Next up: soccer

With PAK United, the initial thought was to launch the program in 2022.

“We decided to do a soft launch now, get activities going and generate interest,” Burns said, adding that he’s appreciative of the support from city administration and Chief Morgan. “We’ve never been in the position where officers who have these ideas could do anything with them.”

Mayor Matt Starr is excited that the idea for PAK United came from line staff within the police department.

“It’s just the type of culture we’re trying to work toward,” he said. “These are the guys who are seeing what’s happening on the front lines.

“We did strategic planning and implemented leadership development and training,” he continued. “They’ve come up with some incredible ideas. The hard thing is to pick out what things we want to follow up on.”

Starr said the city formerly had a program called Kickball with the Cops.

“Jeremiah resurrected that. It wasn’t hard to recognize the potential,” he said. “Within two-and-a-half hours, we had a logo and funding. That’s the power of a good idea.”

Looking to the future, Burns said that Mount Vernon is a template city for its police department chaplain corps, which initially was met with a bit of resistance and apprehension.

“Three years later, other communities are modeling after us,” he said. “I think people are going to look at this [PAK] program and say ‘we need to do what Mount Vernon did.’”

Next up on the calendar is a soccer game on Aug. 11 at the MVNU soccer field. The program is open to middle and high school students.

Checks to sponsor PAK United can be made payable to the City of Mount Vernon and mailed to Auditor Terry Scott, City of Mount Vernon, 40 Public Square. Be sure to put PAK United on the memo line.

For more information, visit the Mount Vernon Police Department Facebook page. Stay tuned because a PAK United Facebook page is being developed.

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