What began as a meet and greet to break down the walls between police and residents in Atlantic City has transformed into a larger community support program to help curb violence.
Using three planned cookouts to address issues that plague the city will help turn the youth away from violence, said Dewane Parker, security chief for the school district.
Last year a series of five cookouts were planned to help break the ice in the community and, Parker said, they were successful in encouraging residents to communicate with officers rather than hide from them. This has led to more tips being sent to police after violent incidents in the city.
"For public relations, it was excellent for us," police Chief Ernest Jubilee said. "We encouraged the Board of Education to have them again this year."
"Children get to interact in a positive way with police officers," and being able to demonstrate equipment to the community "puts our officers closer to the community," said Sgt. Monica McMenamin, spokeswoman for the department. "It's like mini National Nights Out."
The cookouts are not solely responsible for encouraging community feedback, though, McMenamin said. With the addition of Tip411 - the anonymous texting service - and ShotSpotter - the newly installed gunshot detection technology - residents are communicating more with police.
And two recent gang raids have wiped out a good portion of the negative influence in the city's neighborhoods, Parker said.
"Until the raids, people said they felt like they were hostages in their own neighborhoods. We are giving them the tools to begin the process to say no to gun violence. When the thugs return, they (residents) can say no," Parker said.
The group, which was named Stop the Silence last year, has joined with the former Atlantic County Stop the Violence, now named Coalition for a Safer Community. That group is planning an all-out move to attack the violence problem from various angles.
"We are taking it from a meeting over hamburgers to giving back information (to the community)," Parker said.
The first of the three cookouts will focus on employment. It will include resume writing, lessons on appropriate attire, interview coaching and online applications through computer stations at the event.
Several casino representatives will be available that day as well, Parker said.
The next one will involve discussion about family life and the disconnect between parents in families where children tend to be involved in violence and crime.
"You've got a dad who was incarcerated, but he's working now. And he's OK if the kid smokes a little sometimes or sells drugs for a little cash," Parker said. The idea is to address these issues and encourage more communication and discipline in some families.
A professor at Richard Stockton College is also involved, Parker said. Marissa Levy, associate professor of Criminal Justice, has told Parker that there are certain improvements and assessments that can easily change the environment in some of the neighborhoods.
"Something as simple as no lighting in neighborhoods can increase crime," Parker said.
Jubilee said there is also a plan to have a big kick-off when the neighborhood walks resume. The details have not yet been decided.
At the events, SWAT officers allow entry into their truck, and the ACPD bomb technicians introduce the equipment they use while on bomb calls, McMenamin said. Toys and prizes are given out to the children attending.
"It's just another opportunity to make a connection to the community," Jubilee said. "The children are able to interact with police in a different venue, other than us answering calls."
The events are tentatively set for July 16 at the soccer field near Chelsea Heights School to discuss employment, July 30 at the New York Avenue School to discuss family, and Aug. 24 at the Uptown School to discuss healthcare and mental health. Exact times have not been set.
Staff writer Lynda Cohen contributed to this report.
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