An ambitious new program seeks to take two groups often seen as at odds with each other — police officers and poor minority youth — and put them on a path to a better life and a more harmonious relationship, using the principles of “positive psychology.”
Earlier this month, the Kingston Common Council approved a $20,000 allocation for the proposed “Peaceful Guardians” program. More funding is coming through the Kingston City School District and the New Paltz-based Carve for a Cause foundation. Eventually, program organizers say, they hope to put together $1.2 million in funding for what they envision as a five-year pilot project.’
“We’ve talked a lot about police-community relations,” said Mayor Steve Noble. “I see this as us putting our money where our mouth is.”
The program is the brainchild of educator and Kingston resident Lester Strong. It will be run by the Center for Creative Education, a Midtown-based not-for-profit that uses arts education and enrichment to help inner city youth in Kingston. Strong, who previously developed literacy and education programs in Washington D.C., said that he and a three-member board developed the Peaceful Guardians initiative as a way to improve the lives of individual cops and kids, as well as improve their relationship with one another.
“The goal is, one to bring these two groups together,” said Strong. “Two to demonstrate that both groups are important to the viability of this community and three to strengthen their quality of life in a way that helps not just in terms of this issue, but with their lives in general.”
Strong noted that cops and minority youth both face challenges that set them apart from the general population. For kids, it may be involvement with the criminal justice system, failure in school and instability at home. Police work notoriously extracts a high physical and mental toll on cops. Decades of studies have found that police officers suffer higher than usual rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, divorce and suicide.
To address these issues, Peaceful Guardians will apply the principals of “positive psychology” — a term coined by psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman to describe a discipline based on promoting individual and community well-being and quality of life. The theory revolves around principals embodied in the acronym PERMA: Positive emotions; Engagement in activities that spark one’s interest or develop one’s strengths; Relationships built around positivity and mutual support; Meaning or finding the bigger picture in one’s life or work; and Accomplishment, pursuing mastery and achievement in accordance with life goals.
Peaceful Guardians aims to put those principles into practice in six-week training sessions, one for cops and one for kids. Officers, Strong said, will learn “mindfulness” techniques like mediation, stress management, nutrition and problem-solving strategies. Part of the training, Strong said, would involve teaching officers to avoid getting caught up in the emotion and chaos of tense situations. The goal, Strong said, is not to tell cops how to do their jobs but to give them resources to live happier, healthier lives off the clock while gaining a fresh perspective on their role as guardians of the community.
“We’re not going to tell you how to be a police officer. They have years and decades of experience with that,” said Strong. “The goal is to invite them to see their work from a slightly different perspective.”
Support from the chief
Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti said that he had authorized all 65 Kingston police officers to take part in the training. The city will cover overtime costs so the officers will not have to use personal time for the seminars. Tinti noted that in the past decade, police academy training had incorporated wellness into the curriculum but, he said, not all of his officers had had that training and others could benefit from a refresher. Tinti said he anticipated that some of his officers would buy into the program while others would look askance. Others, he said, would hopefully come to see the value of the initiative once they took the training.
“Cops traditionally are not touchy-feely by nature,” said Tinti. “But I don’t think this program is about that. It’s about personal development and how to live better not only on the job, but in their personal lives.”
For the kids of the Peaceful Guardians program, facilitators will employ the same principles tailored to help them navigate the universal trials of adolescence, compounded by the additional risks linked with poverty. Participants will be recruited in seventh and eighth grade and continue with the program through high school. The goal is to recruit 50 middle-schoolers a year for the next five years. Strong said applicants may be referred to the program by school officials and other community members, but they will have to pass an interview with a program facilitator to ensure that they are motivated to stick with the years-long commitment.
After the initial six-week training, participants will be paired with a mentor chosen from a group of volunteers recruited and trained by the Kingston Interfaith Council — a coalition representing 23 area churches. The mentors will meet with program participants twice a week to offer guidance on issues in school and at home. Once a month, current and former members of the program will gather for meetings to discuss their concerns and goals. The youth program, Strong said, would focus on issues like “values clarification” — learning to live by a defined code emphasizing respect and compassion for others — and how to respond calmly and rationally to stressful situations.
“If these young people can simply live by the guardian’s creed, it will transform Kingston,” said Strong.
The cops and kids will come together towards the end of the initial six-week training for sessions designed to build mutual respect and understanding by working together on community projects and other exercises.
The program is set to begin in January. Backers are still seeking funding, including from Ulster County which recently embarked on its own effort to assist at-risk youth in Kingston. Strong said they’re also looking for a partnership with an academic institution to provide independent third-party assessment of the program’s impact on participants and the community at large.
For police, the assessment would focus on metrics like sick days used and civilian complaints, as well as regular surveys of community stakeholders to gauge shifting attitudes towards the city’s police officers. For the youth, metrics include school attendance, grades and disciplinary issues.
“We really want to know what the community thinks and how participants have been impacted,” said Strong. “And to do that we need a third party assessment of the program’s efficacy.”