OPELOUSAS, LA — The city of Opelousas announced two new initiatives aimed at decreasing juvenile crime and delinquency.
The St. Landry Juvenile Assessment Program and Cops That Care program are already in motion.
Thursday authorities interviewed some potential kids for the program and mentoring one on one with off-duty police will start in the next few days.
“We got to reach out to those kids and not arrest our way out of every situation we come in contact with,” said Opelousas Police Chief Martin McLendon.
His department is redefining community policing with its latest initiative.
“These are people that really care about them,” McLendon stated. ” That’s why it’s called Cops That Care.”
Cops that Care will pair at-risk youth with off-duty officers who will share weekly activities designed to improve social behavior. Both Chief McLendon and Opelousas Mayor Julius Aslandor said it’s needed to combat a violent trend in the city.
“A lot of those weapons we’re taking off the streets is coming off the hands of juveniles, and so that tells us we have a problem in that area,” said McLendon. “The way to do it and to solve it is to let them come in contact with a police officer in a positive way.”
Alsandor added, “It has to start now, and if we don’t change it now, too many kids of ours that we think are lost will truly be lost.”
St. Landry Parish applied for a state grant three months ago which will fully fund the program. Each child will receive a stipend and officers will be compensated through the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice.
“If we can start talking to these kids and understanding what caused these problems for them to give the unwanted behavior, then we are on the path of some type of recovery for them,” Alsandor said.
The grant lasts one year, but extensions are available for three years. Although both men would like to see the program outlive the grant, they are confident they’ll see results in the months and years to come.
According to McLendon, “That’s what this is really all about. Changing the mind of those juvenile delinquents. Changing the minds of kids who may be headed in the wrong direction. You’re talking to someone who was headed in the wrong direction, and someone convinced me to turn my life around and that’s why I’m sitting here today.”
Cops That Care will also have an educational element. Students will receive incentives for improved school performance as well as behavior.
The St. Landry Children and Youth Services Board and an advisory board of Opelousas community members will oversee the programs.
Some of the kids are referred from the courts, others when officers are dispatched for troubled children. Instead of arresting the kid they’ll refer them to the mentoring program
“A lot of kids, they’re fighting to belong to a certain group,” McLendon said. “Well, they’re going to belong to Cops that Care.”