Officers and teddy bears: Northampton police start 'cruiser care program' for children caught up in disturbances

Last modified: Tuesday, December 03, 2013
NORTHAMPTON — About six months ago while responding to a domestic violence call, Officer Joshua Wallace noticed the woman’s child, who “was just being a normal 2-year-old,” grabbed a pen and wrote all over the restraining order application they’d been filling out.

“I thought about it and I wished I had something I could give him to do while Mom and I did what we had to do,” said Wallace.

Soon after, another woman came into the Center Street police station seeking help with a restraining order, two young children in tow. Wallace volunteered to give the children a tour of the station while their mother worked with an other officer.

The incidents prompted Wallace to initiate a new program, the cruiser care pack program, which outfits all cruisers patrolling the streets with duffle bags filled with items that might keep children occupied, or offer them comfort during a traumatic situation. These care packs include books, markers, coloring books, crayons, and stuffed animals.

The public is invited to donate items for them at stations set up at the police station house on Center Street or Wal-Mart on North King Street.

Wallace said there are many times such care packs will come in handy — car accidents, arrests of a family member, the delivery of bad news, to name a few.

“We come across it so many times when kids are involved in incidents they don’t really grasp, but it’s saddening to them,” said Wallace, who has been with the department for about five years.

“We can lessen the chance that they’re suffering from something later in life,” said Wallace. “Studies have shown that this type of program lessens the traumatic stress on children.”

He remembered back in the 1990s when many cruisers carried with them stuffed animals to offer children when the circumstances warranted it.

“I started thinking if we could get back to that, to carrying teddy bears in the cruisers for kids involved in traumatic events,” said Wallace.

He proposed the idea for the cruiser care packs to his superiors, who gave him the go-ahead. Wallace said he reached out to local businesses and even national chains, with several responding with donations and support.

Packaging Corp. of America made the boxes that now are at Wal-Mart and in the police station lobby accepting donations from the public. Wal-Mart donated duffle bags that hold the toys and other items.

Build-a-Bear Workshop donated stuffed animals; Pacific Printing on Damon Road made T-shirts to put on the bears emblazoned with “NPD Cares.”

“I’ve gotten more than I thought I would ever get,” Wallace said.

He said he has to stop by Wal-Mart every few days to collect the donated items so they don’t fill up the box.

Sgt. Robert Powers said cruisers used to ferry around some “cheap little bears” to give to children, but the care packs, which hold markers and games and books and coloring books in addition to stuffed animals, will be even more helpful. He said each cruiser will be equipped with one. “The idea behind it is when we deal with children out in the streets, we’re able to take something out of the car and it takes their mind off what just happened,” said Detective Timothy Satkowski.

Wallace is among the officers who have received crisis intervention training preparing them to respond to a variety of mental health emergencies.

Wallace said the donations coming in will enable the department to replenish the bags when supplies run low, but if donations are plentiful, they may be donated to a shelter where children might enjoy them.