The Transformative Power of Prairie Band Potawatomie Nation’s Police Explorer Program

It is late afternoon in the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation (PBPN) at the local high school’s Police Explorer Program, and students are learning technical skills—fingerprinting, for example—that most of us only see on television. Here on the PBPN Reservation, located in the northeast corner of Kansas, law enforcement officers are teaching teenagers the basics of crime-scene investigation. But these lessons are about more than dusting for fingerprints: the interactions are about forging unlikely connections between teenagers and police officers with the broader goal of substance abuse prevention and vocational training opportunities—not to mention citizenship. As PBPN Tribal Youth Program’s Project Manager, Lieutenant Matt Simpson of the Potawatomi Tribal Police has a bird’s-eye view of the program: “We’re teaching [the youth] real life practical skills that they may or may not use in law enforcement, but they also have a technical aspect to enhance their education and their lifestyle and their knowledge content,” he said.   

As in many Tribal communities, police officers and teenagers in PBPN have a history of mistrust. PBPN’s Tribal Youth Program’s Police Explorer Program (PEP), however, is working towards a more harmonious future by bringing youth and police officers together by instructing and mentoring youth ages 14-20 on law enforcement-related topics. PBPN’s Tribal Youth Program has also implemented GREAT (Gang Resistance and Education Training), a nation-wide curriculum that places law enforcement officers in local classrooms to promote life skills and to help prevent delinquency. EDC Technical Assistance Specialist Dave Brave Heart praised PBPN’s Tribal Youth Program for its commitment to its well defined goals: “PBPN’s strength lies in their ability to provide a clear and achievable vision for their youth who have chosen to engage and maintain their participation in the Explorer program until graduation,” he said. So far approximately 35 Explorers have participated in PEP, and over 400 of the community’s 4th and 6th students have been instructed in the GREAT program. According to Matt Simpson, PEP is transforming the way that youth and law enforcement officers relate to one another—and how youth perceive themselves. Simpson recalls the transformation of certain youth who walked into their first Explorer meeting as quite shy and timid—and ended up running for class president several months later. “We’ve really gotten people to see in themselves, and…to open up and learn how to go after a goal and to stick with it,” he said.

From the beginning, the goals of PEP have been rooted in the needs of the community. While celebrating the various sports and language classes offered on the reservation, the organizers of PEP wanted to offer another possible activity for Tribal youth. Near the start of the grant in 2011, an informational meeting was held to gauge local interest and over 90 community members were in attendance—a significant number for a community of approximately 1,500 Tribal members. Simpson makes it a point to emphasize that PEP is not and never has been a recruitment tool for the law enforcement profession. “Instead, it’s a model to teach kids skills and about the law enforcement relationship and about how they can be productive citizens,” he said. Still, youth are able learn the ABC’s of the police profession: marksmanship drills (without firearms), firearm safety, vehicle stops, and building searches—among other technical skills. Community involvement remains an integral part of the program: earlier this month, the Police Explorers helped to collect 1,194 pounds of food for community members in need.  

In terms of structure, PEP meets four times per month on a weekly basis. Each month features two sessions on specific law enforcement topics. The third monthly meeting consists of a “fun night,” where youth participate in an activity such as putt-putt or a movie night that can promote character development and teambuilding skills. Finally, calendar month’s fourth meeting is specifically dedicated to traditional cultural activities such as beadwork. Outside of the weekly activities, Explorers also participate in community events such as Pow-Wows. On Memorial Day of last year, when PBPN’s American Legion post, known as “Wa-Ta-Se,” toured the reservation’s cemeteries, one Explorer took part in the ceremony by playing the trumpet. On average, about 11-18 youth attend the PEP meetings, though attendance fluctuates due to sports and language classes; approximately 20% of the Explorers are female, and 80% are male. 

Simpson attributes much of the Police Explorer Program’s success to an ability to innovatively respond to the needs of the students and the community at large. Over the years, the program has faced its challenges—one being the perceived stigma of law enforcement among many youth. At the start of the program, Simpson and his colleagues “worried whether the kids would be ridiculed at school or bullied at school because they are associating with the police.” In order to respond to this challenge, the PEP reached out to local agencies such as the Education Department and the Language department to provide extra support to participating students. Other hurdles have included the competing demands of other extracurricular after-school activities and a lack of transportation. Simpson and his colleagues have found creative solutions by meeting the students where they are. For example, the Tribal Youth Program has “re-adapted the curriculum to be more fluid,” so even if a student cannot attend all of the meetings, she or he can still participate in the PEP. The program has also collaborated with the Tribal Chief of Police to offer transportation to the community meetings. 

In terms of program sustainability, creative partnerships have proven crucial. “We really partner with anybody and everybody who is willing to work with us,” said Simpson. PEP’s champions include the General Manager of Tribal Operations; the Tribal court; and the Tribal social services department, a collaboration which is especially helpful in terms of mentorship and providing male role models for teens. Other agencies outside of the PBPN community include the local sheriff’s department as well as the State Office of Corrections, which provided a tour of the local prison about 30-40 miles away. The County District Attorney also spoke with the youth about what happens if a crime is committed. “We were able to turn that not only into an educational piece, but a prevention piece,” said Simpson. PEP also looked to external sources, such as the Walmart Foundation, for additional funding opportunities. 

Technical Assistance Specialist Dave Brave Heart is confident that other communities can find inspiration in PBPN’s program: “I believe PBPN’s story can…encourage other grantees that have come up against barriers in the implementation of their grant, and that there is always a way to overcome them with persistence and hope,” he said. As far as advice for other grantees goes, Simpson encourages his peers to be open-minded and persistent. “We didn’t have all the answers going in, and so we had to be fluid, we had to be flexible, and we had to be willing to listen to our participants and ask ‘what is working and what isn’t working’ and then make changes accordingly,” he said. Above all, it is important to keep the big picture in mind: “Remember what the true intention of this program is for—to benefit Tribal youth,” said Simpson.

If you would like to learn more about PBPN’s Tribal Youth Program, please contact their Project Manager, Lieutenant Matt Simpson of the Potawatomi Tribal Police.  His phone number is (785) 966-6658, and his email address is msimpson@pbpnation.org.

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