Police relations with youth in the Rathburn area are taking a giant leap forward, thanks to an activity-filled summer of basketball, laser tag and barbecues courtesy of the ProAction Cops and Kids program.
Over the last six weeks, officers from south Etobicoke’s 22 Division have joined teen members of the Rathburn Area Youth (RAY) program at eZone – a 30,000 square foot sports and entertainment complex on North Queen Street – to bond over 90 minutes each week, while enjoying the centre’s indoor golf, ball hockey, basketball, whirly ball, laser tag and cosmic mini bowling facilities together.
Const. Chris Watson, a neighbourhood officer out of 22 Division’s Community Response Unit, said the goal of the program was to improve the relationship between the police and youth in the area and “for them to see us as more than just a uniform.”
To those ends, Watson said during their joint outings to eZone he and fellow Consts. Hetty Woudenberg, Raul Cutuli, Kevin Neill and Jamie Juhasz were “annihilated” on the basketball courts and shot many times over on the laser tag course by the 30 or so RAY youth aged 12 to 16 who participated each week.
“It was nice to see the kids acting as if we were normal people, as opposed to police officers. They sort of let their guard down around us, mingled with us, and talked to us normally,” Watson said. “By the end of the program, there wasn’t any sort of fear anymore, which in the beginning it looked like there was. So it was a good start.”
The program also helped Watson and his fellow officers build relationships with the staff from RAY – partnerships Watson said he hopes will be maintained well into the future.
“I don’t know what the kids would do without the staff there,” he said, commending RAY leader Wayne Sewell especially for his leadership. “I really respect Wayne and the other staff at RAY so much for what they’ve done and all they continue to do for their community. You can see the respect that these kids have for him. It’s unbelievable.”
Charis Romilly-Turner, who supervises RAY as the youth programs co-ordinator at LAMP Community Health Centre, called the summer program between her youth and local police an “amazing partnership.”
“I think it’s really important (for youth and police to establish trusting relationships) because, unfortunately, usually when the youth get to interact with the police it’s after there’s been community violence or some other incident, so it’s a very different kind of relationship,” she said.
“I’m a huge advocate of community-based relationship building, and I think it makes a huge difference. By building these positive relationships now, it also means that when there are threats in the community in the future, the youth might feel more comfortable talking to police. This is a community that has quite a few challenges and the kids are marginalized.”
Having the program fully funded – ProAction, a private funder of Toronto Police Service programs for young people dedicated to “bridging the gap”, covered the costs for the youth to travel by TTC to eZone, their entrance into the facility and also footed the bill for their weekly barbecues – was also a huge boost for the teens, Romilly-Turner added.
“It makes the youth feel great to know that someone would support them in being able to do those kinds of activities,” she said. “I want to recognize the leadership of the police, for allowing these officers the time to come in and make those relationships with the youth in the community, which is so key. That leadership makes a huge difference.”
Sherine Benjamin was just one of the RAY teens whose opinion of police was changed by her participation in the program.
“A lot of people hate the police, but they are not actually bad people,” she told a Toronto Police Service reporter last week. “They do a lot for the community, as we saw this summer, and I really like that.”