SOUTH PORTLAND – The goal of a new program at the South Portland Police Department is to teach and reinforce safety habits in the city’s youth, according to Officer Linda Barker of the department’s Community Response Unit.

The Cops and Kids: Keeping it Safe program, which officially kicked off last week, is designed to encourage kids to use proper safety measures, such as wearing bike helmets and using crosswalks through positive reinforcement techniques, Barker said.

“In the course of any given day officers will see children riding bikes or skateboards without helmets, crossing busy streets without using crosswalks and other risky behaviors. Through the use of positive reinforcement we hope to educate and encourage being safe,” she said.

Another benefit of the program, according to Barker, is the ability to “foster positive interaction between our youth and law enforcement. We want children to know that police officers are here to help them.”

Barker said the South Portland Police Department is an active member of the Community Partnership for the Protection of Children and “works with other service providers and community members to develop best practices for families and youth at risk.”

For the Keeping it Safe program, the department has partnered with local McDonald’s restaurants and the Bicycle Coalition of Maine to promote youth safety.

She said McDonald’s has provided the police department with coupons for free Happy Meals that can be given out to children found doing the right thing in terms of proper safety habits.

In addition, Barker said, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine has provided the police department with bicycle helmets to give out to youth who may not have one of their own.

Through the Keeping it Safe program, “Officers throughout the community will look for kids being safe and provide them with a helmet, if needed, or a reward for being caught using safe practices,” she said.

Barker also said the Bicycle Coalition and the police department are working together on a bicycle safety event for youth on the west end of the city sometime this summer, which will also include Avesta Housing.

Last week, Barker said, “Officers, including our very own K-9 Sabre, had fun teaching the kids at Brick Hill Heights ways to be safe. It was a terrific outreach to the community. We met many children and their parents who were happy to hear of our visit.”

She said the new Keeping it Safe initiative is just another way for the police department to partner with various businesses and community groups to provide positive outreach to South Portland residents.

“The safety of our youth is a priority with the police department,” Barker said. “We have an officer stationed as a (school resource officer) in the high school and others who teach Internet safety, cyber-bullying and alcohol education in both the elementary and middle schools.”

In addition, she said, “police officers mentor young people, work with local colleges and universities to provide internships for students interested in careers in law enforcement and work with Special Olympics of Maine. (Keeping it Safe) is just one of many police department programs.”

For instance, Barker said, within the past year the police department has also begun a women’s self-defense program called WAVE. “The interest for the program has been high (and) we are planning a mother and daughter session soon,” she added.

South Portland youngster Mataya Pardue with Officer Jeff Pooler during the kickoff of the Cops and Kids: Keeping it Safe program last week. She got a coupon for a free McDonald’s Happy Meal for using a cross

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