Travis Kerby has the shoulders of a linebacker and the street-smart gaze of a man who’s spent 16 years as a Scottsdale cop.
But on a recent Monday afternoon, Officer Kerby was awash in giggles and creativity, surrounded by kindergartners in the Tonalea Elementary School cafeteria. Officer Kerby and the kids were crafting miniature dinosaurs out of construction paper. The kids compared designs, tittered at flubs and chatted amiably with their “big buddy in blue.”
What seemed like simple conversation was exactly that – and a lot more.
Officer Kerby’s presence is part of a new Scottsdale program to break down barriers between cops and the people they serve. It acknowledges that kids grow up in a complex world filled with temptation, peer pressure and sometimes foreboding authority.
It recognizes that amid a blizzard of choices, children still seek direction, role models and sometimes just someone to talk with.
Scottsdale’s Police PLAY program — Partnering Law Enforcement and Youth — seeks to make those connections. It encourages uniformed police officers to stop by after-school programs around Scottsdale and just hang out. Launched in January, the program now includes 13 after-school sites.
“It’s not intended to be a lecture by some robotic authority figure,” said Officer Kerby, who’s a Scottsdale Police Crime Prevention Officer. “It’s all about organic human interaction. We are simply talking and engaging in activities that are very stress free.”
Officer Kerby worked with Parks and Recreation Operations Supervisor Erin McKallor-Quill to come up with the concept. He shared his frustration that many of his formal talks with kids seemed to place him in an aloof, authoritative role – one not conducive to building trust or relationships.
Ms. McKallor-Quill got buy-in from city recreation staff. By sharing a game of pickup basketball, a round of checkers or ideas for an arts and crafts project with local kids, walls come down. Relationships are built.
At first, the kids didn’t know what to think.
“When Officer Kerby first started coming, I always thought someone was in trouble because that’s usually what the police come for,” said Thalia, a second grader in the Tonalea after-school program. “But since he comes to play with us … it’s not that scary. He’s funny and always tries to do the art projects, even though sometimes his doesn’t come out so good.”
Despite his artistic shortcomings, Officer Kerby said he prefers to do crafts with kids. It’s less competitive than sports and more conducive to socializing.
“I dropped in to do four-square once at the Yavapai after school program,” he said, shaking his head. “It was tough. Those girls out there are cut-throat.”
At Tonalea on this Monday, the action is more about bonding and styling cutout dinosaurs. It usually takes a child only about five minutes to get past the uniform and badge, said Ms. McKallor-Quill, and accept the officers as older and wiser play partners.
“It’s nice for the kids to know that police officers are there to help them,” said Recreation Leader Megan Lescoe. “I have even heard some kids say that because (Officer Kerby) has been around they also want to be police officers one day.”
On his birthday, the kids at Tonalea made Officer Kerby a banner and sang him Happy Birthday. As the dinosaur project wrapped up, they compared artwork and provided Officer Kerby feedback. His final version featured a blue, polka-dotted Brontosaurus signed by several of his after-school buddies.
Some of the artwork will be posted in a display area at the Scottsdale Police McKellips District Station. When schools tour the station, several of the students inevitably recognize the crafts and tell their friends about the Police PLAY program and Officer Kerby.
“Kids get a kick out of seeing the art,” said Officer Kerby. “It’s another way of building connections.”
They are connections that go both ways. Officer Kerby admits that hanging out with the after-school kids has rekindled his appreciation for simpler things, like learning a little bit about these students, their aspirations and their theories on decorating dinosaurs.
“This program allows you to see a different side of the community and that’s good for officers,” he said. “These kids are awesome. They are so much fun to be around. It really restores your faith in humanity.”
Editor’s Note: Mr. Phillips is the city of Scottsdale public affairs manager.