The Lighthouse: Cops Are a Beacon for American Kids

Cops have a truly unique opportunity to be the lighthouse that guides little ships—our children—giving them immediate safety, guiding them to future security, and finding them safe harbor.

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Typically in this space I link—literally and figuratively—to a trend in recent news headlines. I cannot do that today because I've spent most of this week completely disconnected from the rest of the world.  

For most of this week, I've been chaperone for my son's field trip to the historic Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a 115-foot-tall structure—one of the tallest lighthouses in America—perched at the precipice of a pretty substantial cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

I did my level best to keep a couple dozen fifth-graders from killing each other, the staff, some random wildlife creature, or me. I'm happy to report that all passengers who set sail from port on Monday returned safely on Wednesday without even the application of minor first aid during the journey.

I was reminded numerous times that these children are truly the future of our country—and that having truly positive influence from responsible adults will significantly enhance the quality of that future.

This got me thinking about the myriad ways in which law enforcement officers are often the lighthouse for kids who might be adrift or unguided.

Here are some thoughts on how police regularly have positive interactions with children.

Police Athletic Leagues

One of the best examples of police officers providing kids with positive influence is in the Police Athletic Leagues across the country. Countless kids get to participate in sports like Judo, basketball, volleyball, baseball, and, even in some cities, competitive chess.

Many of these programs are specifically directed to serve people from poorer neighborhoods that would otherwise not have the opportunity to play in a league or learn not just the physical skills necessary to play, but the values of hard work, fair play, and respect for others.

I've been a coach of youth sports on-and-off for the past three decades. Anyone who has coached kids knows that the bond built between players and coaches is deep and long-lasting. Kids who have fond memories of the officers who provide this amazing service are likely to carry on in positive lives as they mature into adulthood.

Explorers and Cadets

Explorer and cadet programs run by police agencies have an enormous impact on young people and their family members. Kids interested in the law enforcement profession are given a fantastic introduction to what policing is really all about—public safety and community service—as well as practical knowledge of the inner-workings of police work.

Explorers become advocates for the police, potentially explaining to peers who don't understand the profession. Cadets swell with pride at having responsibilities in helping an agency provide police services to its citizens. It merits mention that many of those Cadets and Explorers go on to earn criminal justice degrees and join the profession full time.

Admittedly, these programs require a considerable investment in both police officers' time and the city's money, but when one makes the argument that the return on that investment is an increase in the number of qualified—and interested—police recruits, the expenditure begins to look like a good idea.

Cops' Children's Charities

Next month, thousands of police officers will sit in a chair and have their head shaved in the annual St. Baldrick's Foundation fundraiser for research into curing childhood cancer. The events have helped to raise $282 million for lifesaving childhood cancer research since 2005. Cops put on the cape of a superhero as they sit in a barber's chair and go bald in support of kids who don't have much of a choice in their baldness caused by their cancer treatment.

There are countless other ways in which police officers organize charitable events for young people—everything from "shop with a cop" events before the winter holidays to contests in which kids get to throw a ball at a target that releases the chief of police into a giant tub of water during a summer festival to programs to support Special Olympics.

School Resource Officers

Possibly the most visible way in which police can have positive interaction kids is through the deployment of officers in schools to ensure their safety. Some argue that officers shouldn't be placed in schools, and that having them there increases the odds of a student coming into a negative contact such as an arrest.

But the fact is that very few kids are arrested in a school, and that the SROs end up becoming a vital support system for kids who may not necessarily have the best home life, may be victims of bullying, or may have academic failings.

Their presence is also the best possible deterrence to school violence—up to and including an active shooter attack.

Domestic Violence Calls

It is worth noting that at a great many calls for service at a domestic dispute, there are children present. Perhaps a family member is being placed under arrest and removed from the home. Depending on the child's age, there may be significant confusion about what's happening.

This is where kids benefit from the philosophy of "taking one extra moment" to explain to the child what's going on, and assure them that their parents or guardians will be properly cared for—both the one who is being carted off in the back of the squad car and the one who remains in the home.

Doing this can go a long way toward helping a young person—who is also a victim of trauma when they bear witness to violence in the home—get through the situation.

Random Impromptu Interactions

Finally, there are countless thousands of day-to-day interactions between officers and young people.

We see video on social media of an officer throwing a football or a baseball with a kid playing by themselves on the front lawn of a home.

We see cops stopping the squad car briefly to play a little basketball with kids in a driveway.

We see snowball fights between cops and kids in the winter months and officers descending en masse on kids' lemonade stands during the summer.

We see officers paying for and installing car seats in vehicles they discover to have kids riding in the back without the proper safety equipment.

We see the sincere care that officers have with kids, and the warm smiles on their little faces for the interactions.

One simply cannot understate the impact that these spontaneous and unplanned interactions can have on a child's perception of police, as well as the future of police-community relations.

Back to Pigeon Point

It merits mention that Pigeon Point was not named for a nearly ubiquitous bird. It was named for the costly shipwreck of the Carrier Pigeon in 1853.

With cargo estimated to be just short of $200K—an awesome sum at the time—the loss of the Carrier Pigeon was a wake-up call.

Lessons were learned, and remedies were made.

Pigeon Point Lighthouse was commissioned to be built and has been guiding mariners and sailors since 1872.

Great things can come from tragedy—as long as there are capable people willing to do the work.

Cops have a truly unique opportunity to be the lighthouse that protects those little ships—our children—giving them immediate safety, guiding them to future security, and finding for them the safe harbor they seek.

Cops can be the light that keeps a kid from crashing onto rocky shoals.

Cops can be the lighthouse.

Keep shining.

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Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot
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