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Can Police Officers Be Effective Mentors for At-Risk Youth?

By Brian Lumpkin, Assistant Chief, Houston, Texas, Police Department; and Everette B. Penn, PhD, Principal Research Investigator, Teen and Police Service Academy and Associate Professor of Criminology, University of Houston–Clear Lake, Texas

Drop cap Two years ago, Houston, Texas, Assistant Chief of Police Brian Lumpkin was assigned by Chief of Police Charles McClelland to increase and improve programming for the citizens of Houston. A federal funding opportunity through the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office of the U.S. Department of Justice called for increasing the awareness of community policing in the community. The request for proposals called for joint cooperation between members of the community and a heavy emphasis on the evaluation of outcomes and objectives. Everette B. Penn, criminologists from the University of Houston–Clear Lake, and Lumpkin worked together to complete a proposal that gave birth to the Teen And Police Service (TAPS) Academy.

Photography by Brandi Smith
On Serving Learning Day, all TAPS youth help clean the gardens for future TAPS classes. Participants haul soil, pull weeds, and have fun while working. The authors plan that a future class will plant and grow a garden for the community.
Youth involved in TAPS find that they can help the police by understanding what law enforcement does on a daily basis and by interacting with officers and the equipment required for the job.
TAPS youth need to understand that their neighbors, their community, and their families are intended to support them. Law enforcement can help underscore this concept.
TAPS youth learn through the program that the community and law enforcement are on their side.
During TAPS breakout sessions, youth have the opportunity to work with mentors from the Houston Police Department. Participants are encouraged to ask questions and listen to those around them. Encouraging team building and learning how to work together are the goals.

The TAPS Academy website is accessible at TAPS Academy is a 15-week program primarily designed for at-risk teens who have shown a propensity for making bad decisions. The academy is currently held at the alternative school in Houston. These at-risk students are temporarily enrolled in the alternative school because they have committed serious code of conduct violations or criminal infractions. While these teens carry the brand of being at-risk, TAPS Academy has found a way to connect with them and help inspire them to see alternative ways of looking at situations and make better decisions via reducing the social distance that exists between police and at-risk teens.

The teens and the police mentors start the program with a pledge known as the TAPS Creed. The creed is focused on moving the students from “at-risk youth” to “at-promise teens.” Teens and police work through a 15-week curriculum comprising topics such as bullying, anger management, avoiding gang life, drug usage, conflict management, and police interaction. After the subject matter expert presentation, the teens and the police mentors break into small groups (10 teens and 2 police mentors) to discuss how each topic impacts them and the community they live in.

Each lively and interactive small group session is the heart of the TAPS Academy program as teens and police open a dialogue—share thoughts, beliefs, stereotypes, and concerns about each other. Overall, TAPS Academy helps these at-risk teens gain skills to manage real-life situations as they develop a deeper understanding of policing and the importance of respecting authority. Additionally, officers gain new insight into the lives, culture, and challenges faced by these at-risk teens and members of their communities. This lively interaction destroys stereotypes and increases communication among police officers and at-risk teens.

Great Mentoring Starts at the Top

The police mentors are volunteers and were nominated by their shift lieutenants to participate in the TAPS Academy because leadership believes each has the skills and abilities to be an effective mentor. Because a premium value is placed on the type of officer involved in this program, a senior police chief makes the final approval for those officers involved in the TAPS Academy. Lumpkin is personally involved and is frequently on-site and engaged in this program. All police mentors are required to attend and complete six hours of training provided by the University of Houston–Clear Lake and Big Brothers and Big Sisters professionals in psychology, conflict resolution, juvenile justice, and child development. The purpose of the training is to prepare the officer mentors for the rigor of one-on-one contact with at-risk teens—to project a caring and trusting demeanor while at the same time maintain the respect and presence demanded by a police officer. After each session of TAPS Academy, the officer mentors along with staff conduct an after-action review to discuss mentorship issues. Adjustments are made and preparation for the next session occurs as necessary.

The highest levels of the COPS Office and the Houston Police Department as well as the City of Houston government have supported the TAPS Academy and provide valuable resources and insight to make the program possible.

The Academics Behind TAPS Academy

The theoretical model for mentoring stems from the social bond theory in which mentors show mentees prosocial behavior, commitment to socially appropriate goals, and involvement in conventional activities.1 Further research indicates not all youth are suited for mentoring. Youth who are considered “at-risk” in terms of individual and environmental factors conducive to crime, delinquency and problem behavior are most likely to benefit from establishing mentorship relationships as a proactive mechanism.2 Additionally, school-based mentoring in which mentees and mentors meet on school grounds is the fastest growing approach with evidence supporting its effectiveness.3

Penn points out that having regular patrol officers mentor atrisk teens may be difficult for some to grasp. Traditional policing is often reactive and punitive, requiring officers to maintain a position of distance in order to perform their job. Community policing calls for stronger relations between the police and the community. TAPS Academy creates bonds and breaks barriers between at-risk teens and their communities. An evaluation of TAPS Academy graduates independently conducted by Texas Southern University indicates success. When evaluating TAPS Academy teens with nonparticipant teens in pretest and posttest comparisons, the following results emerged:

  • Feeling connected to the police: 33 percent improvement among academy teens
  • Liking the police: 29 percent improvement among academy teens
  • Trusting the police: 33 percent improvement among academy teens
  • Respect for the police: 32 percent improvement among academy teens

There was no change from the teens not in the TAPS Academy program during the same time period.

Additionally, at the end of the TAPS Academy program teens were asked if they believed officers could be mentors. Seventy-five percent said yes. When officers were asked if they view themselves as mentors to the teens, 100 percent said yes. The officers were asked to elaborate on their responses. One officer stated, “They need role models.” Another stated, “We both learned [officer and teen].”4

Understanding the conflict that may exist between traditional policing and a mentorship or community policing model, the officers were asked, “Can you still do your job as a police officer while being a mentor?” The answer was clear as 100 percent of the officers answered yes. What this means is that officers chosen to be in programs such as TAPS Academy, when properly selected and trained, can enforce the law and mentor at-risk teens concurrently. Officers discussed how this is possible by stating that “respect” was important. One officer said, “Show concern and you get respect.” Another officer stated, “Long-term relationships can be developed.” Finally, another officer stated, “Opening up occurs and bonding is easier.”5

With both teens and officers believing officers can be mentors the larger question looms: Does this mentoring effect carry over to officers who are not directly involved in the mentorship program? Seventy-five percent of the teens respected TAPS Academy officers more than regular police officers. This is significant as it appears TAPS Academy changes the opinions and perceptions of teens toward officers. Comments from teens indicate that after TAPS Academy and interaction with their mentor officer teens do not see all officers as evil, untrustworthy, or dishonest. “We find a reduction in social distance from teens toward the police once they have completed TAPS Academy,” said Penn.7

This program also motivated Lumpkin to share the TAPS experience with all officers on the Houston Police Department through an in-service training class titled Teens and Police. McClelland approved the two-hour class and had it added to this year’s mandatory training curriculum for all 5,200 officers.

“This training gives our officers a better understanding of the teen brain, the declining juvenile crime statistics, and the lessons learned through the TAPS Academy experience and the importance of having positive interactions with the teens on their beat,” said Lumpkin.8

To date, this class has been very well received by Houston’s police officers. It is hoped that the training will allow them to better understand teens and help them handle calls for service and investigations involving teens more safely and effectively. ♦

1Travis Hirschi, Causes of Delinquency (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).
2David L. Dubois et al., “Effectiveness of Mentoring Programs for Youth: A Meta-Analytic Review,” American Journal of Community Psychology 30, no. 2 (2002): 157-197, (accessed January 16, 2013).
3Sarah E. O. Schwartz et al., “The Impact of School-Based Mentoring on Youths with Different Relational Profiles,” Developmental Psychology 47, no. 2 (2011): 450–462, (accessed January 16, 2013).
4Interview with police mentors in the TAPS Academy, December 11, 2012.
6Everette B. Penn,
7Brian Lumpkin,

Please cite as:

Brian Lumpkin and Everette B. Penn, "Can Police Officers Be Effective Mentors for At-Risk Youth?" The Police Chief 80 (March 2013): 26–29.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 3, March 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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