|The magazine of University of Houston-Clear Lake
Spring/Summer 2013 | volume 19 | number 2
Reducing the Distance
When Brian Lumpkin and Everette Penn first started brainstorming the idea for the Teen and Police Service Academy, Lumpkin knew they had to find a way to reach the kids that other community police programs had missed.
“We spend a lot of time with good citizens and a lot of time with good kids,” says Lumpkin, who retired in April 2013 as assistant police chief for the Houston Police Department. “I could never find an opportunity to talk to those kids ‘on the cusp’.”
Through the TAPS Academy, Lumpkin, who is a UHCL alumnus, and UHCL Associate Professor of Criminology Everette Penn created a way for police officers and others in the criminology field to reach out to at-risk teenagers and work toward bridging the gap between the teens and authority figures.
“If we can teach both sides skill sets, we can show them how ‘de-intensification’ happens,” says Penn.
Creating and Conversation
In 2011, Lumpkin and Penn learned about potential grant funding through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services, which supports the advancement of law enforcement engagement within the community. By fall 2011 TAPS was granted COPS funding for a test program in Houston that launched the following January.
TAPS has since evolved to an 11-week program primarily held at Beechnut Academy, which is part of the Houston Independent School District. Students at Beechnut have often been suspended or expelled from their original schools for reasons such as truancy or discipline infractions. The program provides a way for Houston Police Department officers to help students see authority differently, and ideally, to help them gain a new perspective on life.
“I wanted my officers to come in and deal with the tough kids, so we went to an alternative school,” says Lumpkin. “We never even pulled [the students’] files. They didn’t do anything to us, and we didn’t have anything on them.”
Several HPD officers signed on to work with TAPS students each week. UHCL alumnus Lieutenant Jason Giuffre has been part of TAPS since its second class, and this past fall he agreed to represent TAPS at one of two Houston-area juvenile facilities – Youth Village in Seabrook and Burnett-Bayland Rehabilitation Center in Houston – as part of an experimental program to work with students who have been incarcerated. Of the previous classes at Beechnut Academy, Giuffre feels they’ve reached all of the students to at least some degree. But it hasn’t always been easy, and the first couple of weeks are especially challenging.
“Everyone is there with their invisible armor, students and police,” says Penn. “The opening up begins around week four.”
During the first few weeks of TAPS being at Youth Village, one student wouldn’t even enter the classroom.
The term frequently used to describe TAPS is “social distance.” It is a gap that the program aims to shrink. By understanding both sides of a situation, HPD officers are learning what might influence the students’ actions and the students are learning that police don’t have to be perceived as the “bad guys.”
“We try to teach them myth versus reality and consequences versus actions and to show them how not to get caught up in the bad decisions,” says Giuffre.
The rest of the semester includes team-building exercises and a service-learning project. Officers spend time speaking with students and listening, playing card games, introducing them to different special squads like SWAT, and sometimes even doing home visits to gain a better understanding of where the students are coming from. “We had assumed that all these kids came from bad backgrounds, but a lot of them have households where the other kids are doing great and this kid is just going through a particularly rough time,” says Lumpkin, who is now serving in a consulting role in the development of TAPS in Columbus, Ohio.
Giving Their Time
Senior Police Officer Jay Henderson, who previously served as a D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer, was inspired to participate with TAPS after hearing Penn explain the program’s goal to reduce social distance.
“I thought his approach could really work, and a reduction in criminal activity by kids who have been through the program would be a nice side effect,” says Henderson.
Henderson has since mentored several TAPS classes and has discovered that these teens can sometimes surprise him. He recalls one student who seemed like a lost cause. In Beechnut partially because of problems with a documented relationship with a gang, the student was almost kicked out of TAPS after a “blow up” during class. To Henderson’s surprise, a week later the student made a vocal plea to return, along with giving a heartfelt apology to his classmates. Afterwards, he became a more upstanding individual in class and at home, distancing himself from the gang, participating in class discussions and even securing an after-school job.
This past fall, Henderson joined Giuffre in working with students in juvenile facilities, with the hope that because these students had already experienced incarceration, they would be more willing to change.
“A lot of the kids we taught at Beechnut Academy have never experienced jail and some of the harder cases frequently display some sort of misguided admiration for those who have,” says Henderson.
“By interacting with teens already in jail, we will be in a unique position to influence kids who have already experienced the consequences of criminal behavior.”
Some TAPS activities focus on working together in an outdoor setting.
Former UHCL criminology graduate student Brandi Smith found herself in a unique position when Penn suggested she do her internship with TAPS. Not an experienced gardener, she worked with a Master Gardener in Houston to create and maintain a garden program for the TAPS students at Beechnut Academy.
“The garden became a huge part of the TAPS,” says Smith, who would help one to two days a week with watering and harvesting the garden. “The kids had to get out there and grow that garden, and I had to make sure it stayed alive for them.”
Smith dedicated every moment she could to being a part of TAPS – a big challenge for a single mother of four who was in the final semester of graduate school. On average, she dedicated more than 50 hours a week to answering emails, conducting research and standing in as project manager when Penn wasn’t able to be on-site.
“It was absolutely awesome because the kids said ‘I didn’t know I could do this,’ ” says Smith, who stresses the importance of community involvement in the garden because it provides a break for the students from the rest of their worlds.
From Here to Everywhere
People have noticed the success of TAPS and they’re not just in Houston. By early 2014, TAPS programs will be in new locations in Houston, Puerto Rico, Miami, Tampa, British Columbia and Columbus.
Penn, who also serves as UHCL department chair of social and cultural studies, brought five TAPS students to participate in the university’s Student Conference for Research and Creative Arts and was able to hear a couple of them express an inspired desire to attend college.
“To see them turn and transform was great,” says Penn. And that wasn’t the only transformation. TAPS research shows that student opinions increased by around 30 percent over the semester in the areas of liking, trusting and respecting the police. Future research will explore how TAPS graduates’ opinions evolve in the three, six and nine months after completing the academy. Penn hopes research will show students have continued to develop a greater respect for authority after graduating from the program.
“We are setting up what I hope is a national movement,” says Penn.
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