SCHENECTADY — The day began with a friendly competition.
Sgt. Adriel Linyear and Patrol Officer Albert Rivera, two veteran officers with the Schenectady Police Department, were seated behind a folding table at the main entrance of Schenectady High School Thursday, where they passed out first bumps to a steady stream of students they helped sign in just before classes began.
In the end, Linyear, a 14-year member of the department, squeaked out a victory, having signed in less than a handful of students more than his counterpart.
“He got me by two,” said Rivera, a 2006 graduate of Schenectady High who has been with the department the past 11 years.
The two officers have been interacting with students wherever possible since volunteering to become community engagement officers as part of a pilot program launched last month in collaboration between the city’s police department and school district.
The program, set to expire in early January, aims to bolster the relationship between the community and police, a goal laid out in the city’s Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative plan approved earlier this year.
It’s been a slow process, but the officers feel they’ve been steadily building relationships as they continue to interact with students and families through as many channels as possible.
The pair have become fixtures at school sporting events and volunteer within the district whenever they can. They make small talk in the hallways and provide resources to families who may be dealing with issues at home and don’t know where to turn.
The officers have even been approached by students about doing a ride along.
“Just taking the opportunity to interact with the students when the opportunity arises,” Linyear said. “A couple kids challenged me that think they can beat me in a race. I’m open to it.”
Recently, the pair have started hosting group discussions, where they meet with students throughout the day during study hall periods to talk about issues surrounding the criminal justice system and policing.
A series of discussions pertaining to justice were held this past week. Around 45 students participated in what Rivera described as a good experience.
“It was good to hear what they think is justice and what they feel justice should be,” he said. “It was just good interacting with them and getting that perspective and listening to them. At the end of the day, they’re the students here, and sometimes why not hear from a police officer himself?”
‘Let’s be restorative’
The program marks the first time police have been in city schools in more than a decade, a move that school officials acknowledge may be unpopular in some circles.
But having the officers there is necessary to ensure a safe learning environment for students, said Superintendent Anibal Soler Jr.
“It’s my job to do all I can to ensure we are providing a safe, healthy and active learning environment and the police are one pillar of that approach. One tier to that approach,” he said. “Having a collaborative relationship, I think it’s our responsibility.”
Still, Soler acknowledged that everyone has a different experience with police, noting that there are students and families in the district that may be traumatized from previous encounters with law enforcement.
But the police department is not going anywhere, said Soler, who noted the district contacts police in the event of an emergency.
He also said having police in schools in standard practice in “affluent” communities or situations involving large groups of individuals.
“Why is it always our kids that are subjected to some of the things that are universal requirements in more affluent communities?” he said. “You go to more affluent districts and there’s no question — they expect a cop or a sheriff to be there. I think part of that is we’ve got to have a tiered approach. My responsibility is to make sure we have done everything and we exhaust every opportunity to prioritize safety, health from a social/emotional standpoint.”
Addressing systemic inequities in policing is one of the challenges the program seeks to address head on, Soler said.
“I’m not going to say there aren’t some systemic inequities with policing. There are definitely some challenges — not only historically but systemically. The data shows the disproportionality. We know that,” he said. “But to ignore it doesn’t fix it either. And to say, ‘hey, let’s not have them [police] in the schools at all,’ doesn’t fix it either. Instead, let’s huddle up. Let’s be restorative. Let’s be in a room together, let’s have the tough conversations.”
Soler, however, stressed the program is designed to go beyond the role of the traditional school resource officer. Instead of patrolling the halls in a traditional uniform and engaging students only when there is an issue, the officers wear more casual clothing and go out of their way to meet students and interact with families.
The officers are also there to respond to incidents of violence, though discipline falls under the purview of the school administration, Soler said.
A decision to place the officers at the high school was made following several violent incidents at the school earlier this year. Students still get into minor spats, though there have been no major issues in recent months, Soler said.
Currently, the police department is covering the cost for the program.
The future of the program will have to be determined early next year following an evaluation process the district will complete with the police department. Soler said it’s something he would like to see continue but noted the district’s Board of Education will ultimately be tasked with allocating funding for the program if the police department can no longer afford the cost.
But while logistics of the program are sorted out behind the scenes, the community engagement officers have been taking what they referred to as an “organic approach” in reaching out to students.
The interactions vary, but every conversation is a small step in the right direction, the officers said.
Rivera, who is bilingual, described a recent encounter with a Spanish-speaking mother with two children in the district that was having difficulties at home. He was able to gain a better understanding of the situation and connect her to the proper resources all in her native language.
“There’s been some cases where parents come here because they have a question,” he said. “It’s good for them to know there’s a police officer that can help them out instead of going to the police station.”
He added that students can also relate to him since he is a graduate of Schenectady schools and has a firm understanding of issues facing students through his own experiences.
Linyear said he has driven several students home and made home visits after students have approached him about issues they’ve been dealing with.
He said his goal isn’t to make people like him, but to hopefully change their view through his actions, which he believes is the best way to build trust and strengthen bonds within the community.
“The objective is to prove people wrong,” he said. “If you think one thing about me and I do the total opposite, people notice and buy in. I’m not going to force anyone to like me. An opportunity may present itself where we can close that gap.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.