Police can be intimidating or off-putting to children – maybe it’s the gravitas of the badge and/or a media portrayal. However, municipal officials want to make sure that every student in Highland Park sees police in a positive light. At the Tuesday, May 19, Borough Council meeting, Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler announced that the Police Department had created a “juvenile officer” position – “juvenile” referring to dealing with youth.
Filling the post is Patrolman Jose Curbelo, who will investigate all incidents related to teens and children, including crimes against them, crimes involving them, and missing children reports. Other responsibilities include coordinating programs like Law Enforcement Against Drugs, or LEAD, which has replaced the DARE program; the junior police academy; and the juvenile justice committee.
For the past two weeks Officer Curbelo has been working with Highland Park schools to prepare for the “Every 15 Minutes” program, which will start at 9 a.m. May 26. “Every 15 Minutes” highlights the dangers of driving under the influence, or while distracted by other activities like texting, by removing one student from class every 15 minutes and announcing details of the student’s “death.”
Mayor Brill Mittler shared the importance of that particular program by the lasting impact she said it left upon her son. “It really shook him up,” she said. “To this day, several years after the “Every 15 minutes” experience, he never will drive if he has had anything (alcoholic) to drink.”
For her part, Councilwoman Elsie Foster-Dublin portrayed Officer Curbelo’s new position as an opportunity to deepen the relationship between police and the youth of Highland Park, particularly black youth. She described an incident from her own son’s childhood as an example of what the program hopes to accomplish.
At the time, her son was nine and had lost his bike two days after he finally received permission to ride it to summer camp. Afraid to tell his mother what had happened, he kept pretending he was riding it to camp, until he saw a police officer and decided to file a theft report.
“The chief at the time called me the next day to say, ‘We found your son’s bike,’” she recalled, and that’s how she found out. Having a more familiar relationship with the police may have led to a more timely resolution of the situation.
Officer Curbelo’s new responsibilities within the schools may be meant to foster better community relations, but some parents expressed their concerns (on social media) about a perceived police presence in school and whether that indicted some sort of problem. Capt. Scott Golden of the Police Department stressed that Officer Curbelo is not stationed in the schools.
“We don’t have an officer as a guard in the schools. Never did, never have,” said Capt. Golden. “This is all something brand new for us and the purpose is to build relationships” as though the juvenile officer were part of the faculty/staff at the school.
Mayor Brill Mittler said this position is a very beneficial development for the Highland Park community and for human relations in general. She looks forward to all sorts of creative outreach programming.
Officer Curbelo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling (732) 572-3800, ext. 4213.