In order to thrive, youth need a system of support that is built upon an overall sense of safety and wellbeing, strong schools, and opportunities to learn and grow outside of the school day. Decades of research show that afterschool programs help kids learn, grow, and avoid risky behaviors. Programs spark interest in learning so students attend school more often, get better grades, and improve their behavior in class. Through new learning experiences, young people discover what they love to do and develop strong social skills.[1] Afterschool provides vital resources that help children and young people stay safe and feel well-supported and give working parents peace of mind during the hours when juvenile crime and victimization peak. Increasingly, law enforcement and afterschool providers are recognizing the value of partnering to support youth with the mutual goal of ensuring that their communities flourish.

    This type of partnership is beneficial for both the youth and law enforcement officials. “Afterschool programs provide a safe haven for children to focus on academics,” says Officer Kenney Aguilar of the Santa Ana Police Department. “These programs also keep kids off of the streets and away from the gangs that plague the neighborhoods.”[2] Collaboration can build mutual respect between youth and officers, while the officers serve as valuable role models for the young participants. By connecting with youth in a positive and engaging setting, officers are able to better understand the community they are serving and change the narrative of interactions between the community and law enforcement.[3]

    Starting Small

    The extent of law enforcement involvement with community afterschool programs can vary. Even the most simple of gestures—such as attending an event hosted by a local afterschool program—can make an impact in the way that youth view the role of law enforcement. Each year, around the country, millions of Americans rally around afterschool in celebration of the important work these programs do for kids, families, and communities by attending Lights On Afterschool events, which can consist of anything from a fun showcase of the day-to-day activities of the program to a more formal ceremony, attended by local politicians, stakeholders, and families ( This year, the city of North Platte, Nebraska celebrated Lights On Afterschool alongside local law enforcement at an event hosted by an afterschool program called Kids Klub. At the event, Mayor Dwight Livingston publicly recognized the important efforts that both afterschool and law enforcement have made in supporting the community and keeping kids safe.[4] This one-time collaborative effort has the effect of marrying the two as partners in the public eye, as they work cohesively toward the goal of community safety, and providing the kids the opportunity to understand and contextualize the role of law enforcement.

    A more formalized or regular collaboration can have even greater benefits. In Omaha, Nebraska, in the spring of 2005, Omaha Police Gang Officer Antonio (Tony) Espejo started a program called PACE (Police Athletics for Community Engagement), when he realized that arresting current gang members wasn’t addressing the main sources of the city’s juvenile crime issue: the lure for kids into the gang lifestyle and the idle time that kids had after school and during the summer months. PACE initially started with soccer—many of the youth in south Omaha were interested in soccer, but couldn’t afford the available programs. PACE allowed kids free participation in sports with supportive coaches that served as mentors. Since its inception, the program has grown in both size and offerings, and now includes baseball, flag football, CrossFit, Christmas programs, and ACT preparation. In 2018, an estimated 4,000 kids participated—a far cry from the six original teams in 2005. PACE participants include kids from north and south Omaha, specifically from neighborhoods with higher crime rates. Omaha and metro area police officers run the program and coach all the teams, with the help of other volunteers from the community.

    The lessons learned and relationships built through PACE increase community engagement—specifically youth engagement—and empower kids with important resiliency skills, including perseverance, goal setting, responsibility, and teamwork. And I have seen this investment in kids building such skills make a clear difference in his community. Since PACE’s inception, officers have seen less graffiti and violent crime in areas where kids are involved in the program. Over the years, PACE alumni have come back to volunteer to coach other kids in their neighborhoods; some are in school, studying to join public service themselves, as police and fire professionals. This year the Omaha Police Department hired their first PACE alumni, who is now going through the police academy and coaches at PACE.

    Most kids first encounter police during some of the most difficult times of their lives, Deputy Chief Kanger reflects. Afterschool programs start the narrative earlier, in a positive fashion, and are the key for sustained success for our kids.

    “President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing emphasized that building trust and legitimacy through community policing is a critical factor in reducing crime; afterschool programs aligned with police involvement are the blueprint for these great outcomes.”

    Take Advantage of the Summer Months

    Opportunities for partnerships do not end when schools let out for summer break — summer programs are in high demand with 73 percent of parents indicating that it is important for their children to have summer activities that help them maintain academic skills and learn new things, making summer programs an equally valuable space for engagement.[5] Founded in 1984, Laramie River Valley Rendezvous in Colorado has worked with more than 1,200 youth from at-risk homes in Larimer County, providing them an outdoor adventure camp complete with activities such as hiking, white water rafting, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Each June, the program brings together campers between the ages of 13 and 16 who come from single-parent, blended family, and foster homes for a week of adventure and fun facilitated by local police officers, firefighters, members of the Colorado National Guard, and other community volunteers. Supported by community donations, grants, and local fundraising events, LRVR is able to provide this experience free of charge to its participants.[6] [7]

    As one camper remarked, LRVR is “a place where a kid can be safe and have fun for at least one week a year.” Young people in the program value the dedication of law enforcement officials who have committed their time and energy to promoting the wellbeing of their community’s at-risk youth. In addition to creating this safe space for young people to relax, explore, and build positive relationships with both their peers and members of the law enforcement community, studies have shown long-lasting impacts of participation. Evaluation results demonstrate an improvement in participants’ self-esteem, a reduction in teenage recidivism rates, and the promotion of positive views toward law enforcement.[8]

    Big Commitment Yields Big Results

    Afterschool programs have the opportunity to change the community narrative around and perception of the role of law enforcement, while also reducing juvenile crime rates and building youth resiliency skills.[9] One program looking to do that is DRAGG (Drag Racing Against Gangs and Graffiti). Sergeants Charles Woodruff and Dan Shrub recognized through their work with the Oxnard Police Department the need for positive mentors for youth in their community and decided to take action. It all started with a 2006 Mustang, decked out to look like the Oxnard patrol cars, which garnered the attention of high school students in the area. Once this attention was drummed up, with the permission of the Ventura County school district, Woodruff and Shrub were able to obtain funding, find volunteer instructors, and open a shop up to house an afterschool program.

    Nearly 9 years later, at-risk youth participate in the program twice a week, for three hours a day, learning anything from basic automotive repair to creative car customization. Through hands-on experiences, special guests, presentations, and field trips to local body shops or racing events, participants work alongside automotive professionals and officers from the Oxnard Police Department to develop both hard and soft skills. The main goal, according to co-founder Charles Woodruff, is really exposure and mentorship: the automotive skills the teens learn are important, but more so are the opportunities to develop professional skills they will need regardless of the field they enter and the support systems they form through positive connections with adults who are committed and invested in their wellbeing. The one-on-one connection with youth is beneficial for the officers as well, reflects Woodruff, giving law enforcement a deeper connection with the community they are working in and the chance to make a personal, tangible impact in some of those community members’ lives.

    “Yes, the cool mustang gets the attention of kids, but it’s when you get them in the classroom after school that you can really start to teach them, and that’s when you can really make a difference.”

    How to Get Involved

    Afterschool programs provide youth the space to develop resiliency, improve their academic performance, and gain exposure to valuable learning opportunities. More than 10.2 million students are enrolled in afterschool programs and participation increased by nearly 60 percent from 2004 to 2014. Yet while participation rates are at their highest, demand is greater than ever before and 11.3 million children are unsupervised after the last school bell rings, during the hours when juvenile crime and victimization peak. [10], [11] Partnerships with law enforcement are valuable opportunities to expand access to programs and promote the mutual goal of keeping kids and communities safe. As evidenced by the examples shared here, these partnerships can be as simple or as wide-reaching as resources and time allow—what counts more than anything is making the effort to bridge that connection with youth. For more examples of partnerships and resources to help you create a partnership that supports youth and contributes to community success, visit the Afterschool Alliance’s afterschool and law enforcement partnership guide. (