GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It may be one of the toughest questions faced by police today: How do you recruit young minorities into a career many of their friends see as the enemy?
It can be especially difficult considering the conflicting messages kids are getting these days when it comes to law enforcement.
“We just tell them we’re not the bad guys,” said Grand Rapids Police Department Officer Connie Morris, describing her matter-of-fact approach to dealing with students. “I just honestly say we’re not after you. And if you’re doing something, stop it, ya know. Really.”
Morris’s story is one that seems to resonate with the kids GRPD is trying to attract — the ones that could go either way.
“I also was one of the kids who hung around the block. I hung out right there at Franklin and Eastern,” Morris said.
But at some point, the then-single mother of two decided hanging out on the corner wasn’t what she wanted out of her life.
“So I left the block where my friends were. I made a decision to pursue law enforcement,” said Morris.
These days, the veteran officer is on the front lines of the department’s recruitment efforts.
GRPD’s Youth Police Academy is part of that focus. It’s one of several outreach programs the GRPD uses to attract young people to the profession. Internships and a police explorer program are part of the effort as well.
But Morris’s classroom visits appear to have paid off. She’s talked to 400 students at schools in Kent and Ottawa County. 300 have applied to the academy and 188 are minority students.
The goal is to make the GRPD look more like the community it protects. That’s never been a simple task. Youthful resentment of authority, both inside and outside of the minority community, is nothing new. The events in Ferguson and elsewhere have made the process even more difficult.
Morris says she knows when she’s broken down those barriers by the look on a student’s face.
“The spark in their eyes. The smile. Maybe the thought that I can do this too. Or, my question is answered. I no longer feel that police are enemies,” said Morris.
Applications for the GRPD Youth Academy will be accepted until April 2.