PORTLAND — Police Officer Henry Small, a member of the Hazardous Devices Unit, has been, on occasion, called away from his family to deactivate bombs in an 85-pound armored suit and a helmet as heavy as a bowling ball. Officer Andrew Hutchins of the diving team has had to plunge into chilly waters in February to retrieve a murder weapon, and patrol Officer Raymond Ruby has had to answer stressful, late-night domestic violence calls.
But what is especially hard for these police officers is knowing that they don’t have a good relationship with the kids and families in their community.
“We want to build trust between the officers and youth. We want to be approachable, not just the guy in the cruiser going in the opposite direction,” said Ruby who patrols Munjoy Hill. “Maybe just one in 10 kids I pass actually wave to me or smile. But it’s that one kid that makes me remember why I actually do this job.”
Ruby and his colleagues volunteered their off-duty time Sunday to help organize and promote the Portland Police Department Youth Services Division at an open house and cookout at police headquarters on Middle Street.
The Youth Services Division, which is partnering with many established local organizations, including the City Parks and Recreation, the Boys and Girls Club and the Boy Scouts of America, is implementing two programs starting this fall that have already been operating in cities nationwide, but haven’t been successful yet in Portland. One is Portland’s chapter of the Explorers, dubbed Post No. 2671 (the badge numbers of local fallen police officers) and a Police Athletic League, or PAL, which organizes sports and other activities enabling police to act as coaches, mentors and teammates.
“We aren’t reinventing the wheel. We’re just going to join the club,” Ruby said.
New Police Chief James Craig advocated the youth division, saying that PAL and Explorers chapters in his previous departments in Detroit and Los Angeles have been very successful. “It’s not just about being police officers, it’s about being good citizens, good members of the community,” Craig said.
About 45 to 50 kids, teenagers and parents came out for a detailed tour of police headquarters, followed by demonstrations by department specialists.
A small group gathered around Small on the brick plaza as he pushed buttons on an over-sized remote control panel, directing the bomb squad robot to crush a soda can with it’s metallic claw. Participants were able to try on Kevlar vests, command the robot, get inside the SWAT vehicle, and learn about diving equipment. Sgt. Charles Libby explained that the department has open houses about twice a year, but not as in-depth and not with the specific goal of starting a better relationship with the community.
In the sunny parking lot next to the state courthouse, friends Esther Mukamisha, 16, and Maggie Chapola, 15, watched as Officer Chris Coyne threw a plastic ball far out into the empty lot to show how speedy his K-9 partner, German sheppard Tai Von Seeburgblic – or just Tai – could catch up to it.
Esther and Maggie said they want to join the Explorers because they are interested in criminal law. Their hope is that they will pass the rigorous application process and become members, then relay their enthusiasm for Explorers to their peers at school to help gain more support.
“The program isn’t just a starting block for the police academy. It teaches responsibility and leadership skills – things that they can take with them through life, whether or not they become a police officer,” Libby said.
The Police Athletic League program could also be multi-faceted in the future, and can take on more than just sports. “We could start a reading or writing group, or arts and crafts – anything that people are interested in,” Ruby said. “But since we’re just starting out, we’re going to try something that we know kids want.”
And according to the police, that’s soccer. Ruby and his fellow officers have some details to work out, like whether they will be in uniform when they play soccer and where and when the teams will play, but they plan to be up and running this fall when school starts again.
Back on the plaza, Henry Small asked if anyone wanted to try on the heavy armored protection suit that was lying on the table. No one raised their hand. Shielding their eyes from the first real summer sun of the season, that was something best left up to the imagination.
Officer Henry Small demonstrates how to use the bomb robot for participants at the Police Department Youth Services division Open House.