To many people, the mention of law enforcement conjures up images of cops chasing bad guys, locking up crooks or handing out tickets. But the Harris County Sheriff’s Office youth outreach initiative is reshaping the perception.

The initiative engages youngsters ages 8 to 17 in motivational dialogues, sports, extracurricular enrichment and interactive activities at public and private schools, academies, daycare facilities and community centers, including those in the Alief Independent School District, the Alief community and the International Management District, which is split between Sheriff’s Office and Houston Police Department jurisdictions.

Operated under the banner of the National Association of Police Athletic/Activities League program (PAL), the Sheriff’s Office youth initiative is aimed at building character and life skills, developing physical fitness, promoting healthy lifestyle, enhancing academic performance, and preventing juvenile crime.

Launched in 2022, the program is run by eight HCSO deputies making up the Community Engagement Unit led by Sgt. Donnie Williams.

Dep. Timothy Mordecai, a 33-year Sheriff’s Office veteran, said the program has touched the lives of thousands of youngsters across the county since its inception.

“This has been one of the most successful programs I’ve seen throughout my tenure here,” Mordecai said, recounting stories of children who run to hug the deputies, parents who follow them on social media, schools clamoring for their return, and deputies invited to youngsters’ homes.

The program’s popularity reflects a shift in perceptions and attitudes toward law enforcement, Mordecai said. Unlike traditional policing, he said, “Kids run to us; they don’t run from us” with the new initiative.

“Once the kids start advocating for us, the parents see that we’re not just here to arrest people; we’re here to offer support,” he said.

Conversations with youngsters go beyond the typical focus on anti-bullying or anti-drugs, which are often associated with police youth outreach. In a holistic approach, the HCSO’s initiative seeks to influence every key aspect of a youth’s growth and development.

At the program’s youth academy classes, students often arrive shy and quiet. Yet as they engage with the deputies, their self-assurance grows, the team said. In sessions that teach etiquette, the youngsters learn to speak politely, carry themselves confidently, and handle various social situations.

In an area as ethnically diverse as Alief and the International Management District, cultural sensitivity and inclusivity are key ingredients of the PAL team’s outreach, Mordecai said.

“We try to make our unit conform to the residents that we work with,” Mordecai said. “We have guys from different walks of life, cultures, races and languages, so when we go out there and we encounter these kids, we are able to communicate with them effectively.”

Such immersive outreach also gives deputies the opportunity to learn about religions and cultures, he said. He noted that engagement with the Iman Academy Southwest in the Alief area increased deputies’  understanding of Islamic culture.

In addition to providing conversations, mentoring, tutoring and physical fitness activities, the deputies seek corporate sponsorships for youngsters to attend events such as Houston Astros games and plays in the Theater District, Williams said.

The unit also teams up with area schools to hold career fairs to expose students to vocational paths and industry-oriented academic pursuits.

Deputy M. Lai of the PAL team echoed the significance of the program’s comprehensive approach.

“We’re not just about talking; we’re about doing,” he said. “These different activities are tailored to engage young minds and foster positive interactions between law enforcement and the community.”

Many corporations and businesses have taken note of the PAL team’s popular, bustling activities in the community and pitched in to boost the program that relies on raised funds. A variety of support has come from Macy’s, Target, Starbucks and local companies and businesses such as boba tea shops in Chinatown, Bucky’s convenience stores and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Advance Auto, among others, provided gift cards for automotive needs to families, including single parents, whose children participate in the program. Frost Bank has partnered with the program to offer financial literacy sessions for the students, while 7-Eleven collaborates on practical life skills training. Raising Cane’s provided meal passes to help address food insecurity in vulnerable youths.

Williams said the success of the program lies in its ability to foster positive relationships in supporting youth and ultimately creating a safer and more connected community.

“We’re changing the old narrative to now say that law enforcement is here to help you,” Williams said. “And we can be the guiding light to get you in the right direction.”

Write to [email protected] to join the program. To support and/or make a contribution to the HCSO Community Engagement initiative, contact the office at 346-286-3125 or [email protected].

In photo: Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, center; Dep. P. Lai at his immediate right; Sgt. Donnie Williams, far left; Tim Mordecai, the third deputy to Gonzalez’s left.

— by Zen Zheng