Ten-year-old Taveon Graves wants to be a police officer.
“I want to help the world any way possible,” he said after sitting through a lecture that might point him in that direction.
Graves was among the 40 children taking part in the first-ever Youth Police Academy, a joint-effort by the Danville Police Department and Averett University in a bid to win the community’s trust and encourage higher achievement in school.
The three-week program, for children ages 10 to 16, aims to introduce those interested in law enforcement to the prospect of college. And on Monday, they crowded the gym bleachers at Langston High School to hear about the possibility of going to college.
“Most people tell you to get away … there’s nothing for you in Danville,” Matthew Mann, assistant director of admissions at Averett, told the crowd of listeners seated on bleachers. “Danville has a very viable option for you to go to college.”
The Youth Police Academy is the latest in a series of steps the department has taken to reduce violent crime and increase community engagement. The Division of Community and Youth Engagement was created in April, roughly two months after Scott Booth was sworn in as police chief. He has taken such steps to reach out to connect with the community ¬as games of basketball and cornhole to youth events and opportunities to meet the chief.
James Hodgson, Averett University’s program director of professional and graduate studies, spoke about the university’s opportunities for students at their hometown college, and noted that the event is valuable for changing the public’s perception of police amid increasing mistrust.
“We’ve seen a side of policing over last couple of years that has shaken many of us to the core,” he said after speaking to the children. “[The program is] wonderful public relations, but I think more importantly it’s about that issue of building relationships and trust.”
Turnout proved to be double what the police department hoped for. It offered 30 spots for the program and received 60 interested responses. It had to increase the program size to 40 children, Merricks said.
Tom Merricks, supervisor of the department’s Division of Community and Youth Engagement, said the program, while tailored to children interested in law enforcement, is helpful to others as well.
The goal, he said, is to put college on kids’ minds and “give them something to shoot for,” while keeping them away from drugs, crime and gangs.
“If we can help one kid, one kid out of this bunch, it’s worth it,” Merricks said.