The first time a group of uniformed Miami-Dade police officers walked into the cafeteria at Poinciana Park Elementary, the students asked teachers and administrators what had gone wrong.
Is somebody in trouble? Is there going to be an arrest? In the Lincoln Fields housing project near Liberty City, where many Poinciana Park students live, police officers are often a sign there’s been a shooting.
“I remember that first visit nobody talked to the cops,” said Principal Amrita Prakash. “Nobody wanted to befriend them, no one was laughing.”
Now, after six months of lunchtime school visits, the reception is different. As Officer Joyce Williams from the Northside District entered the Poinciana Park cafeteria this week, a group of students ran up to hug her. They clustered around Williams and shouted out updates on everything that had happened since her last visit. Six other officers fanned out in the cafeteria, joining students as they waited in the lunch line.
The lunches aren’t just a break for the students. They are also a chance for Northside officers to bond with the youngest members of the community after a trying couple of months: The ambush-style shooting of two Miami-Dade police detectives in March took place just blocks from Poinciana Park and earlier this month Major Ricky Carter, commander of the Northside District, was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash.
At one end of the cafeteria, Officer Edward Wade sat down at a table of third-grade boys. As the students ate spaghetti off their lunch trays, Wade asked about their summer plans.
“Playing football!” one student said.
“Summer camp!” said another.
“I’m going to my grandma’s house,” a third student said. “She’s got a pool.”
“You know how to swim?” Wade asked.
The student nodded. “I can stay under water.”
Wade gave the students advice on how to stay safe in the pool. Then the conversation shifted to sports, and the boys shared their favorite basketball teams.
“It’s just being one-on-one with them and showing them that we’re human just like them,” Wade said, explaining the “Lunch with a Cop” program. “We’re just basically showing them, ‘Hey it’s okay to talk to an officer.’ You don’t have to be on pins and needles and its not the end of the world when you see us show up. Sometimes we just want to show up and say, ‘Hey are you alright? You okay?’ ”
It’s a message the Northside District police have been sharing with students at other Miami-Dade schools as well through their Youth Outreach and Neighborhood Resource units, said Sergeant Andres Juliao. In addition to spending lunchtime with the students, the officers give them safety recommendations like what to do if a stranger approaches them or if they see a bullet on the ground. The officers also read to students, enroll kids in fitness challenges and offer etiquette classes for the high school prom. All of it in an attempt to mentor at-risk students and improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
And, at least at Poinciana Park, the program seems to be working.
“Our students have a lot of experience in the community with police officers, some good, some bad interactions,” said Prakash. “This really helps our students see police officers with a smile on their face, with lots of laughs, coming in with a big pat on the back, a big hug, jokes.”
For some students, the lunch program has also given them new goals for the future.
First-grader Natalie Gibson was eating at a table with Williams and other first-grade girls from her class. Natalie said she liked spending time with Williams “ ’cuz she’s nice and helps the community.”
Asked what she wants to do when she grows up, Natalie replied that she wanted to be a nurse. Then, as she spooned corn onto her sandwich with a plastic spork, Natalie glanced over at Williams and gave it some more thought. “I want to be a police officer,” she said. A police officer and a nurse.
Officer Camille Normil said seeing the students warm up to her has been an encouraging experience. The first time she visited, “They were a bit nervous because they see different things on social media,” she said. “But once they get to know you and they warm up to you, they open up. The next thing you know, they’re holding your hand, they’re giving you hugs. They’re saying, ‘Come play patty-cake with me.’”