Residents living nearby North Bergen’s Kennedy Branch Library at 21st Street may have overheard a heated battle on Friday, May 29. From the loudspeakers of two police cars emerged young voices saying, “Car 44 is better than 34,” or, “No, car 34 is best!”
The voices belonged to second graders from the John F. Kennedy School, and the competition was part of an afternoon session called “Cookie with a Cop,” designed to get the kids familiar and comfortable with policemen, to foster better communications with the community, and to teach aspects of safety and crime prevention.
Two groups of kids spent about an hour each with four officers from the police department, getting to ask questions, play in the cars, and gain exposure to various crime solving techniques.
The 26 second graders were quite clear about their favorite activity.
“The car,” said Genesis Villa, 8. “I sat in the front where the wheel is.”
“I got to say ‘34 car is better than 44 car!’” said Jeremy Calle, 8, a devoted member of Team 34.
“And I got to beep the buttons and play the sirens,” added Isabella Rodriguez, 8, excitedly.
According to Brandon Caicedo, 8, the best part of the day was “Having fun outside. And getting fingerprinted.”
The experience clearly left a positive impression. “These kids today, if they didn’t before, when they see a cop in school they’ll say, ‘hi,’” said Officer Alfredo Echeverria.
“It’s really cool learning how police officers use fingerprints to identify and how no two people have the same fingerprints.” –Nitya Neema
“That’s the whole idea,” said Library Director Sai Rao with a smile.
Cookies with a Cop is an offshoot of North Bergen’s ongoing Coffee with a Cop initiative launched in March. Coffee with a Cop events are run in municipalities across the nation as a way to build trust and rapport between police and citizens. They were designed in North Bergen specifically to introduce and familiarize the public with the new Community Policing Unit, established earlier this year.
Running the Cookie with a Cop session were the three members of the unit: Officers Brown, Saray Durango, and Echeverria, who introduced himself to the kids as “Officer Etch.” All three report to Lt. Arthur Del.
Joining them for the session was Officer Constantinos “Dino” Apostolakos, providing the fingerprinting expertise. For the morning session with sixth grade students he demonstrated how to ink their fingers, roll them on cards, and inspect the prints for telltale markings.
“We did something like this in class but it was with a pencil,” said Briana Classen, 12, from Horace Mann School. “We put it on the paper and then we put our finger on it. It’s cool how they find out how crimes take place.”
The 29 sixth graders came from six different elementary schools and were all part of the gifted and talented program known as PEAK: providing enrichment and accelerated knowledge. Recently the group participated in a forensic science program for all elementary schools in the county, bringing the kids to the Meadowlands Environmental Center for a program of fun and instruction.
“It was a two day field trip and once we got there they split us in different groups,” said Yara Attia, 11, from Lincoln School. “There was one group that did hair analysis. There was another one that did footprint casting. And then there was another one that did fingerprints. I was doing the footprint casting.”
Heather Carline runs the PEAK programs for the school district. “We wanted to bring it down to the local level and that’s one of the reasons why we’re here today,” she said. “To talk a little bit about forensics and pick the brains of the officers. And also to talk about safety. Staying safe over the summer.”
The officers stressed various important points to the kids, like not talking to strangers, buddying up for safety, and telling a policeman or adult immediately if they encountered something troubling.
Mayor Nicholas Sacco introduced the morning session, welcoming the kids to the library. Then Officer Etch took over.
“At first they were a little scared,” he said. “They have a really mixed perception of what we do and who we are. It’s always like we come over and you’re under arrest. I expressed to them that we’re problem solvers. If the law says we have to arrest someone, then we have to uphold the law. But if we can, we will help as well. We’re borderline counselors. Our main focus as a unit is to make a cohesive bond between kids and the residents and us, the department.”
To that end, Officer Apostolakos explained various details of the crime-solving processes, breaking down the investigation into the human interaction and interviewing, and the collecting and inspection of physical evidence. He showed the kids not only how to create fingerprint records on paper, but how to lift prints off glass or other objects.
“Anything practical that they see comes alive,” said Apostolakos. “The abstract, it’s hard to keep kids interested. But this is a bright group. Once they get their hands on something they get involved.”
“It’s really cool learning how police officers use fingerprints to identify and how no two people have the same fingerprints,” said Nitya Neema, 11, from John F. Kennedy School. Asked if she might like to be a cop when she grew up, she answered, “I don’t think so. I’m scared to. Their life is on the line. Because if they capture a criminal, their teammates might try and kill them.”
Xavier Figueroa, 11, from Robert Fulton School, had a different answer. “I never met any cops up close. I like the job,” he said.
So would he like to be one someday?
“Yeah. It’s pretty cool. You get to help people.”
The Community Policing Unit will be holding a Coffee with a Cop session at the uptown library in the near future, and will conduct a bike registration event from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on June 6 in James J. Braddock North Hudson Park.
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.