It’s 3:30 on a sunny afternoon, and four black-and-gold Lucas County Sheriff’s Department squad cars roll into the McClinton Nunn housing projects in central Toledo. As deputies ease into a parking area, three young men stare from a concrete stoop before two of them bounce inside. Across the way, 23-year-old Alexendra Arent also watches the cars. “Get in the house,” she tells her kids. “Get in the house.”
Hauling crates of books as part of the Books 4 Buddies campaign, these eight sheriff’s deputies just came from nearby Stewart Elementary School. There, students and parents greeted them with beaming faces and outstretched arms, including sixth graders Taylor Hughes, Najae Pettaway, and Jayona Wren. Already avid readers, the three told me that having police officers hand out books would put their peers more at ease.
At McClinton Nunn, however, none of these veteran officers expected a welcome mat — at least not at first. In the hood, most cops aren’t known as Officer Friendly. Instead, they’re the guys who roust your friends, beat down your brother, or don’t show up for a 911 call. In a no-snitch culture, talking to the police is near-treason.
Maj. John Tharp, who’s running unopposed for Lucas County sheriff, understands a lot of this. When he brought the department into Books 4 Buddies, he knew he was not only promoting literacy for disadvantaged young people but also taking a small but important step toward better police-community relations and safer streets.
“Books help us start conversation, and conversation builds trust,’’ he said. “We want children, at a young age, to get to know officers by their first name. It’s a way to encourage the community to work with police and even encourage young people to look at law enforcement as a career.”
Since June, Books 4 Buddies has collected more than 10,000 books — aimed at young people, especially males, up to 18 — at various community sites, including Cedar Creek Church campuses, Buckeye CableSystem, and Toldeo-Lucas County Public Library.
Volunteers have given out the books at Birmingham Terrace housing, Frederick Douglass Community Association, Adelante Latino Resource Center, and other spots, said program adviser and Detroit writer Eddie Allen. Books 4 Buddies will continue collecting and distributing next year.
Peer ambassadors such as Brandon Jackson, 17, a high school senior with a 4.1 grade-point-average, help collect and distribute the books. “Without reading, you can’t do anything,” he told me.
Fourteen-year-old Toure McCord, a Toledo native now living in Cincinnati, started Books 4 Buddies with a lot of help from his grandmother Laneta Goings of Toledo. Toure wanted to cultivate his love of reading in other young people, especially males from low-income families.
But it was Major Tharp’s idea to pack the books in the trunks of four units patrolling Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority developments, enabling deputies, such as 27-year veteran Jerry Taylor, to get them to children.
“We’re showing another side of police officers,” Deputy Taylor told me. “If the only time you see police officers is when they’re arresting someone — that’s not the way to build faith and trust.”
Building faith and trust, inside a comfort zone, won’t be easy in neighborhoods such as McClinton Nunn.
When Ms. Arent and her three children saw the squads roll in, they thought a shooting, fight, or break-in had occurred. She was relieved to find officers handing out books instead.
As I talked to Ms. Arent in front of her apartment, her 4-year-old son, Ricardo Salinas III, stood by, smiling and proudly holding up his Toy Story book.
“This is the first time I’ve seen the program,’’ she told me. “It helps build relationships. Kids are terrified because they see bad things whenever those [squad] cars show up. I was nervous myself. Then I saw officers handing out books. I was like, that’s cool. Having that kind of contact dims it down a little.”
A few yards away, J’onn Cavitt, 13, wearing a brown athletic suit, straddled his bike and talked to Deputy Valerie Hughley. She gave him a book and asked him to read it to younger kids in the neighborhood.
“Are you serious?” J’onn, an eighth grader with a 3.8-point-grade-average, said with a smirk.
“Yes, I am,” Deputy Hughley said. “Look at me. Can you do that for Miss Val?”
J’Onn said he would.
“Make sure,” she said. “I’m going to be checking on you.”
As the crates emptied, officers walked toward the street to greet kids coming home from school. They rifled through the crates and grabbed a book, smiling. Many said thank you.
Handing out hundreds of books in an afternoon won’t change the world, or even make Toledo’s streets safer tonight.
But it’s a start.
Many kids got something to read and maybe another way to look at a police officer. Maybe they even found another way to look at their futures.
In the end, that’s the only thing that will keep any of us safe.
Jeff Gerritt is deputy editorial page editor of The Blade. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6467. Follow him on Twitter @jeffgerritt