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Small groups of students at both J.I. Case and Washington Park High Schools are walking around with a new appreciation and understanding of what it takes to be an area police officer.

Racine and Mount Pleasant police officers facilitated the first STOP program in Racine Unified this fall and recently “graduated” their first classes; three at Case and one at Park.

Racine County Eye spoke with Racine police Officers Kristy Brietchaft and Lina Edwardson about their experience and why they think STOP is a positive force in the greater Racine community.

“The most important take-away of STOP is that students have a better understanding that police are people, too,” Brietchaft said. “We’re human so we’re not perfect but we try our best.”

For Edwardson, STOP was all about building bridges.

“I learned they are thirsty for the truth, they are open minded and strong-willed,” she added. “They are our future and I am proud that I got to take part in such an amazing program where I could share some of my knowledge with them while building bridges between their world and mine.”

Brietchaft said the bonds she and Edwardson formed with students is evidence that STOP is worth the time and effort they put into it; a typical one-hour session usually involves about two hours of prep on their part depending on the lesson that day.

“We’ve been invited to visit students while they’re at work, and we know how they spend their free time,” she added. “We actually had to push students out of the classroom so they could get back to their schedule; they didn’t want to leave.”

Edwardson agreed, saying she thinks she got more out of STOP than the students did.

“I was able to get a look into the minds of our young leaders. To hear what they thought of law enforcement on an even playing field,” she said. “I think I learned more then they did in our seven weeks together!”

STOP – Students Talking it Over with Police – was developed by the Milwaukee Police Department in 2010 to foster stronger relationships and understanding between officers and their community. STOP is an award-winning program that appears to be working, according to research being done by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Students are given the same questionnaire when the program begins and again at the conclusion about their perceptions of police. A story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel cites positive statistics compiled by UWM; 98 percent of participants say they feel better about police, and 88 percent say their concerns about police were addressed.

Participants attend STOP for one hour a week for seven weeks, and the program is open to students from 9th to 12th grade who are recommended by their teachers and counselors because they are positive members of their school communities. One of the primary criteria they have to meet is not having any prior contact with police so that they come into the program with a clean slate, so-to-speak.

“The goal was to introduce positive interactions with police to students who might have some preconceived notions, but haven’t necessarily had contact, and we definitely achieved that,” Brietchaft said.

STOP classes include introducing them to the gear officers wear and carry in their vehicles; explain the difference between felony and misdemeanor charges; and leading students through role playing where the students are the officers and have to use what they’ve learned to successfully handle the scenario they’re given.

Brietchaft and Edwardson have two more classes at Case to graduate after the Christmas break and will then head up next semester another eight classes between the two schools, a requirement under the UWM research guidelines to determine STOP’s success in Racine Unified.

Edwardson said STOP is one of the most rewarding things she’s done as a police officer.

“It really is one of the best experiences in my 13-year law enforcement career. I am lucky to be a part of it,” she said.