Eight-year-old Kemper Thompson confidently walked up to Police Officer Melita Jefferson during his lunch break at Pershing Hill Elementary on March 2.
“I remember you,” Kemper said. “You read a book to my class.”
A smile lit Jefferson’s face as the second-grader recognized her.
Jefferson is one of Fort Meade’s community policing officers. She has organized events on post to strengthen the bond between police officers and the community over the past couple of months.
“It’s not just about the events,” Jefferson said. “It’s also about building a relationship with the community. That’s a big thing.
“Even as adults you want somebody that you can trust. If you give the children somebody they can trust, that’s a big thing. That’s a big step.”
Jefferson and other community policing officers strive to visit the schools on post every day they are in session.
“Pershing Hill has been my heart,” Jefferson said. “They just opened up the doors to us. Since the beginning, the children have been phenomenally awesome.”
Policing With Heart
The long-term value of interacting with students resonates with Pfc. Tyler Hokit of the 241st Military Police, who joined Jefferson at Pershing Hill that morning.
“[This is] community policing,” Hokit said. “We want to be the face sitting down and reading with the kids. … You’re improving the future if you touch the hearts and souls of the kids more than if you’re just ticketing their parents.
“You’ve got to balance the two. This is a nice way to [keep that] balance.”
Jefferson and Hokit were surprised to see that their superiors, Capt. Brian Kunkel and Lt. Jeremiah Irvin, had showed up to read to the children that morning as well.
“It means a lot when you start doing something and eventually, everybody else sees the good in it and they start doing it too,” Jefferson said. “I love it.”
Hokit said that seeing his superiors reading to the children felt like one of those moments where “his faith in humanity was restored.”
“I know both of those people are very busy,” he said. “The fact that they took a little bit of time out of their day to come out and hang with the kids, it means a lot.”
Jefferson’s future community policing plan is to organize a skit and video presentation about bullying at Manor View Elementary School.
“It’s getting there,” Jefferson said about having the police department interacting with the community. “It takes some time. … If your passion is to help the community you serve and work in, it’s going to show in your work ethic.”
‘A True Community School’
For Pershing Hill Principal Kimberly Terry, having the police interact with students is a benefit to the school.
“It’s another resource, it’s another outlet,” she said. “If there’s a problem and [the students] don’t want to tell us, they might talk to Officer Jefferson.”
The military and police presence at Pershing Hill increased after Garrison Commander Col. Tom Rickard made education a priority for the installation.
“Officer Jefferson has come out above and beyond. I’m sure [that’s] what the [garrison] commander expected of her,” Terry said. “Whenever she has a free minute, she comes out.
“She helped with a family that was displaced for Christmas.
“She’s been spearheading a lot of stuff for us. We love it.”
At first, both students and teachers were worried by the presence of the police at their school. Now, Jefferson and the other officers are seen as regulars.
“I think it’s really great because if [Jefferson] ever does have to come in the case of an emergency, it’s not going to alert or alarm anybody,” Terry said. “The kids are kind of used to seeing her and the other police officers. It’s not a big deal.”
Of all the schools on post, Pershing Hill has the most military students. Ninety percent of its student body have parents on active duty.
With that in mind, Jefferson and Hokit understand that patrolling the halls in uniform can elicit certain reactions from the students.
“You don’t know what these children are experiencing,” Jefferson said. “… You just don’t know what your uniform represents to them.”
Jefferson has contributed to the Terry’s mission for Pershing Hill — to be a true community school.
“These kids are only here for like three years,” Terry said. “We are their family as soon as they hit the door.
“Being a military spouse, I know that feeling and I understand that, so I wanted it to be a true community school because they are so far from their families. We just want to be one big family.”