Life with Gracie: Atlanta police use horses to build bridges between cops, kids

Too often, mentoring programs target kids people consider at risk of dropping out of school, falling into crime or who already have a rap sheet.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Based on their history alone, chances are that they need the help whether they want it or not.

But under a blistering hot sun the other day, I watched as members of the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation and the Atlanta Police Department’s Mounted Patrol Unit horsed around — think rubbing your belly and head at the same time — with kids who so far have managed to steer clear of law enforcement.

Instead of at-risk youths, these officers like to think of them as children of promise or as the foundation likes to say AT-PROMISE, which is what the foundation is calling the department’s newest mentoring effort.

AT-PROMISE, they say, is an acronym for Atlanta Partnerships Respect Opportunities Mentoring Innovation Safety Security and Empowerment.

I know. It’s more than a mouthful, but trust me, watching the launch of the program a week or so ago was a sight to see.

Fourteen officers. Twenty 13- to 17-year-olds from one of Atlanta’s roughest neighborhoods who, left to their own devices, could very easily fall on the wrong side of the law. Together forging a bond, seemingly oblivious to the divide many believe exists between police and minority communities.

AT-PROMISE, they hope, will help change that perception, prevent youths from ever entering the criminal justice system and ultimately encourage more African-Americans to become officers willing to police their own communities.

“APD understands that the impression we make on the people we come in contact with can impact their lives, forever,”’ said Atlanta Police Chief George Turner. “Our goal is to be the force for positive change, and creating long-lasting, positive relationships with youth is vital to our success in this effort.”

It’s important to note that AT-PROMISE isn’t in response to the recent rash of violence we’ve witnessed here and across the country. It’s one of several mentoring programs the Atlanta Police Foundation has initiated to help improve community relations, said Aaron Nicholson, program manager for AT-PROMISE.

Nicholson said metro Atlanta is fortunate that we have not experienced the same situations like Ferguson, Mo., or Baltimore, Md., and he’s proud that instead of responding to a crisis, efforts are being made “to create positive relationships between the APD and youth.”

Nicholson said if you need a reason to believe that, perhaps AT-PROMISE is it, proof-positive, this city, too busy to hate, is about preventing tragedy and bad relationships before they happen.

“It speaks volumes for this city,” Nicholson said. “We are a community that takes public safety personally.”

Talk of launching the initiative began some three years ago when a group of concerned citizens decided trying to arrest our way out of juvenile delinquency was simply fool-hardy.

“A big part of reducing juvenile crime is creating better relationships between police and youth,” Nicholson said. “The Atlanta Police Foundation wanted APD out in front because officers need to build relationships with kids and kids need to see officers outside the norm.”

Mid-July marked the beginning for AT-PROMISE. For the next three months, the youths will meet once a week every other week with members of the mounted unit.

In addition to changing the way the youths see police, Nicholson said they also hope to expose youths to the different law enforcement careers.

They will do this through a series of active learning sessions in which they help care for, groom and fit the horses that officers ride to do their jobs. They will also be required to complete community service projects.

Keavonte Lindsey, a 17-year-old rising senior at Carver Early College, found out about the initiative at the Thomasville Center of Hope Boys and Girls Club, one of the program’s partners.

Lindsey said he’s always wanted to be a police officer.

“This is the perfect opportunity to see what that might look like,” he said.

Other partners include CHRIS Kids and the Atlanta Habitat for Humanity. Lisa Gordon, president and CEO of Habitat, said about six teens with ties to her organization are participating in AT-PROMISE and that participation will count toward their parents’ 250-hour sweat equity requirement for a home.

More importantly, she said, the organization saw this as way for the teens to get real-life experience with officers, who will help them become better people and improve their self-esteem.

“We want to be part of creating strong, safe communities, and we think the partnership with the foundation and APD helps us work towards positive, strong communities,” Gordon said. “It’s a win-win.”

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