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Law Enforcement as Mentors: Building Relationships, Careers, and Community

MARCH 15, 2017

Editor's Note: Several members of the NMRC Research Board participated in the 2017 National Mentoring Summit this past February, leading a research track that featured OJJDP-funded research and totaled 13 workshops across the multi-day event. We asked several Research Board members to share their key insights from the event based on a workshop they lead, an innovation they learned about, or a conversation they had with an attendee that made them think about the mentoring field in a new light. We will run several of these stories over the months of March and April in the NMRC blog to bring the Summit to life for those who could not attend.

A cross-cutting theme of the 2017 National Mentoring Summit was the role of law enforcement in the mentoring movement. Several workshop sessions provided exemplary programs and innovative ideas for engaging law enforcement in mentoring, and the closing plenary session focused on “Strengthening Community and Police Relations through Mentoring.” I think this emphasis is quite appropriate as law enforcement-based mentoring programs find themselves at a unique nexus in the fields of mentoring, career development, and community development, particularly in communities of color. Police are very aware of the needs of youth in their communities. They also recognize that they “cannot arrest their way out of the problem,” but need to take a different approach to build relationships with youth beyond legal encounters. Therefore, police-as-mentor programs are timely and well-positioned to benefit youth and communities in several ways.

Building Relationships

At the Summit, leaders from several programs from across the United States such as “Bigs in Blue,” the Police Athletic/Activities League (PAL), and the OK (Our Kids) program presented best-practices they have used to engage law enforcement officers in mentoring. At the heart of each of these programs is developing relationships. The primary emphasis of each program is, of course, the relationships between officers and young people as can be seen in the Miami “Bigs in Blue” program. However, if mentoring programs hope to leverage the resources of law enforcement, positive collaborations among key stakeholders from all parts of the community – citizens, community leaders, municipal leaders, and law enforcement administration – are essential to success. Donald Northcross, Founder and CEO of the OK Program, pointed to the techniques he has used to ensure program success in communities of color such as

  1. engaging local church pastors “who have juice” to set up the meetings between stakeholders;
  2. ensuring local police departments assign officers’ time to working in the OK program in terms of “getting more out of your resources” and “not losing an officer, but gaining a community;” and
  3. real recruitment of boys (think how star athletes are recruited).

Building Career Opportunities

Chris Hill, President Emeritus of National PAL, Gale Nelson, President of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami, and Mr. Northcross highlighted the potential of law-enforcement mentoring programs to expose youth to related careers. These careers are not limited to being a beat cop, but include many STEM-based careers critical to police efforts.

The benefits of engaging law enforcement officers in youth-serving programs is also echoed in my own recent work. Through funding from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) National Foundation, my colleagues and I have examined youth perceptions of BSA’s Exploring program. Exploring provides an immersive learning experience with mentorship in one of twelve career fields, including law enforcement. A sample of youth, mostly youth of color, described Exploring as marked by the “Big 3” characteristics of effective positive youth development programs (Lerner, 2004). That is, Explorers indicated that the immersive experiences and structure of Exploring provided them with support from leaders, ignited or stoked their passion for their chosen career field, and promoted leadership skills in preparation for their chosen career path. In addition, Explorers reported supportive networks in which Exploring post advisors and teachers served in key career counseling roles. These types of connections can provide “bridging capital” to more diverse career and educational opportunities as these youth move into early adulthood (Putnam, 2015). Experiences of racial and structural constraints often hinder the vocational aspirations of youth of color, and these youth also experience fewer opportunities for work and lower exposure to occupational role models (Wilson, 1996). Law enforcement-based mentoring programs may “bridge” this career gap for youth of color by helping them envision a vocational future for themselves while also “bridging the gap” and building relationships between police and local communities.

Building Communities

Both historical and contemporary practices and policies contribute to the barriers between police and local communities. Communities of color often hold lower levels of trust and confidence in the police. Youth, and particularly youth of color, are also subject to more frequent interactions with law enforcement and also hold less positive views of police than adults (Brunson, 2007; Hurst, Frank, & Browning, 2000). Multiple speakers pointed out that young men of color are not even going to call the police when their life is in danger. Think about that! Therefore, increasing positive interactions between youth and police through mentoring programs may reduce these barriers and contribute to individual and community safety and quality of life.

Not only are attitudes toward law enforcement linked to youth race and ethnicity, but the race of law enforcement officers also influences people’s perceptions of encounters with police (Cochran & Warren, 2012). As such, efforts to increase the diversity of law enforcement officers may improve community-police relations for multiple reasons. Mr. Northcross pointed out that the pipeline between the OK program and local police forces leads to communities of color being policed by “people that look like you, as a black officer has one foot in the black community and one foot in the police force.” Officers recruited from the local community share experiences that increase their empathy for youth, but these officers’ behaviors are also viewed as more legitimate by the community. Police who were raised in a community may be perceived as more caring about what is best for a neighborhood.

By building relationships, career opportunities, and communities, programs such as the “Bigs in Blue,” PAL, the OK Program, and Exploring have the potential to positively impact young people and their communities both in the immediate and long-term future.

Edmond P. Bowers, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Youth Development Leadership at Clemson University. You can read more about his work here.


Brunson, R. K. (2007). “Police don't like black people”: African‐American young men's accumulated police experiences. Criminology & Public Policy, 6, 71-101.

Cochran, J. C., & Warren, P. Y. (2012). Racial, ethnic, and gender differences in perceptions of the police: The salience of officer race within the context of racial profiling. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 28, 206-227.

Hurst, Y. G., Frank, J., & Lee Browning, S. (2000). The attitudes of juveniles toward the police: A comparison of black and white youth. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 23, 37-53.

Lerner, R. M. (2004). Liberty: Thriving and civic engagement among American youth. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Putnam, R. (2015). Our kids: The American dream in crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wilson, W. J. (1996) When work disappears: The world of the new urban poor. New York: Random House.

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