ESSEX, Mass. — Just over a year ago, 20 schoolchildren and six adults were gunned down at a Newtown, Conn., school, a horrible incident that reverberated in this coastal town.
Police Chief Peter G. Silva’s first instinct was to send officers to Essex Elementary School, but school officials were hesitant about having an unknown police officer in the classrooms, suspecting that his presence would make children more anxious rather than less.
So Silva made it his mission to find a way to introduce children to members of the local force, so they would recognize a friendly face matched with a helping hand. The solution: Trading cards, a throwback to both old-time hobbies and community policing.
The collectible cards, not unlike baseball cards, offer a photo of a police officer on the front, and some statistics and personal information on the back.
For example, Silva’s card says he joined the town force in 1988; he’s also fond of the classic rock sounds of Chicago and Styx.
“This is a perfect opportunity to get the kids and the community involved with the Police Department,” Silva said.
He said talking with parents immediately after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown taught him that townspeople didn’t know their local police as well as he thought. It was the same in the schools.
“They might know me, (Officer Rob Gilardi) and a few other guys, but they don’t know everybody,” Silva said.
He hopes the cards allow officers, schoolchildren and their parents to become better acquainted.
The goal is to have each child in Essex Elementary School collect an officer’s card by stopping by the police station on Martin Street or spotting an officer out and about in Essex.
Binders filled with plastic sheets to hold the cards are available at the station and were given out at the school recently.
As an added incentive, if a child collects all the cards, including administrative assistant Mary Elinor Dagle’s wild card, he or she is entered in a raffle for a new bicycle donated by Silva and his wife. There will be other miscellaneous gifts and prizes along the way.
Schoolchildren can only ask for one card at a time, cannot trade or give away cards, and must present Silva with a completed set of cards for a chance at the bike.
And children are advised not to approach police in the course of duty – helping with a medical transport or car accident, for example.
Silva is optimistic that having children involved will also ultimately lead to adults getting to know their local police officers.
The community backed the program itself, Silva said, since nearly all of the money to pay for the card program came from donations. “I want to get everyone involved,” he said.
Permission slips, mostly to advise parents of the program, went home with Essex Elementary School pupils recently.
And parents and students are already showing interest, according to Principal Jennifer Roberts.
She said she also helped generate buzz at a recent Parent Teacher Organization meeting.
“(Permission slips) have been coming in steadily,” she said. “Feedback has been very positive.”
The program brings Sgt. Paul Francis back to his days as a Drug Abuse Resistance Education officer. Francis said when he was involved with DARE, children were more comfortable talking with police and a good rapport was established.
“Some people think all we do is make arrests,” he said. “There is so much more to it than that.”