Members of the Northampton Police Department participate in "Coffee With a Cop" at the Northampton Senior Center. / FACEBOOK

Police End 'High Five Fridays' at Elementary School After Complaints

A police department has ended its “High Five Fridays” program after complaints from parents that their children were uncomfortable.

Since December, students at elementary schools in Northampton, Mass., were greeted on Fridays with high fives from local police officers. The program was intended to show students that police officers are friendly and approachable.

“We thought it was a great way to start building relationships with young kids,” said Jody Kasper, Northampton’s police chief. “We liked that it was something that was seemingly — seemingly — simple, but has turned out not to be.”

According to a Feb. 18 statement on the department’s Facebook page, the program “received a lot of support on social media,” but a handful of parents were less optimistic.

“Concerns were shared that some kids might respond negatively to a group of uniformed officers at their school,” the department stated. “People were specifically concerned about kids of color, undocumented children, or any children who may have had negative experiences with the police.”

Kasper said that the department does not want to provide any students with a negative experience with officers — “even if it’s just a handful of kids.”

“We are everyone’s police,” Kasper said. “Not just the majority, and not just the minority.”

Northampton is 84.2 percent white, 6.8 percent Hispanic and 2.7 percent Black, and 8.8 percent of the population is foreign-born, according to U.S. Census Data.

The department’s Facebook post stated that even if the concerns were not widespread, they still had to be addressed:

“For a large portion of our population this program may not seem controversial. However, we cannot overlook the fact that this program may be received differently by some members of our community.”

Kasper echoed these sentiments in an interview.

“Certainly we do not want to have our officers at a school and have kids, even if it’s a handful of kids, be traumatized and have a negative experience with our officers,” she said. “That’s the opposite of the goal we’re trying to accomplish.”

Some residents have criticized the decision and believe the program should be brought back.

“I just think my kid will benefit, and the community as a whole will benefit, from positive opportunities for the police and the children to get together,” said Tim Chilson, 58, whose 10-year-old son looked forward to High Five Fridays at Leeds Elementary School.

But at a community meeting prior to the cancellation, Ward 2 committee member Laura Fallon said that parents who are uncomfortable may have a hard time approaching the situation.

“You may be getting positive feedback but it may be really difficult for people who are having a negative reaction to come to you and say, ‘It really upset my child to come to school and see the police because the police have been at our house three times this month,'” Fallon said.

In December community member Gina Nortonsmith called the program well-intentioned but also “ill-considered, tone-deaf and potentially damaging.”

Public perceptions of police officers are mixed. A Gallup poll released in October found a sharp increase in respect for police officers among whites and nonwhites. In 2014, 64 percent of whites and 53 percent of nonwhites said they had a great deal of respect for the police. In 2016, this went up to 80 percent of whites and 67 percent of nonwhites.

However, a Pew Research Center study released in September found stark differences between how Blacks and whites view police. Thirty-five percent of Blacks said police treat all races and ethnicities equally, compared to 75 percent of whites. And a 2015 Gallup poll found that confidence in police had went down. For 2012-2013, 60 percent of whites, 60 percent of Hispanics and 36 percent of Blacks said they have confidence in the police; however, in 2014-2015, this went down to 57 percent of whites, 30 percent of Blacks and 52 percent of Hispanics.

Responses on Social Media

The department’s Facebook statement received hundreds of reactions, comments and shares. Many accused the department of being “politically correct,” some thanked the department for its decision and a few expressed gratitude for the department’s efforts either way.

“Thank you, Chief Kasper, and NPD for continually looking for ways to serve our community and for being willing to listen and adapt,” one user wrote. “Your professionalism makes me proud to be a citizen of Northampton.”

But many users were disappointed and even angry that the program had been cancelled.

“What’s next Will the department stop making arrests because defendants might be traumatized” one person questioned. “You are ignoring the vast majority of residents who want strong, decisive officers to protect them.”

Some people suggested that cancelling the program because students may be uncomfortable negates the program’s purpose, which was to provide children a positive perception of police.

“The program was giving those kids an opportunity to become comfortable with police and have a more positive relationship with law enforcement than they might otherwise have,” one commenter said.

“All the more reason to continue doing the program,” another wrote. “Showing the students that the police are NOT the enemy and that whatever they me learning from their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, older sibling, etc are wrong. That the fact that these children are judging/discriminating someone because they wear a uniform is wrong.”

Others questioned the program’s effectiveness in the first place, pointing out that a high five does not equate trustworthiness.

“How does fist bumping and high fiving a kid prove that you are ‘good’ and 100% trustworthy” a commenter asked. “Seems like we should have more thorough criteria than that for evaluating someone’s ethics.”

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