NEW CASTLE, Del. (AP) — When 11-year-old Laquairia Womack usually thinks of police, she pictures men and women with badges and guns, out catching criminals.
“Their job is to protect us, so you wouldn’t think they’d go and decorate a room,” Womack said. “That’s not something that seems like a cop would do.”
Yet that’s exactly what two New Castle County Police Department officers have been doing for the last several months — painting and furnishing a girls-only room at the New Castle Police Athletic League.
On Thursday (Oct. 10), officers Mary McGrath and Corey Nicholson unveiled the renovated room to their fellow officers, county officials and, most importantly, girls at the PAL who will be using the space.
Tucked in the back of the Karlyn Drive building, the room, with its pink and gray walls, plush beanbag chairs, emoji pillows and fairy lights, is intended to be a relaxing place where girls can take a break from the boys at the PAL, or just go somewhere quiet.
While the space has always existed, prior to McGrath and Nicholson’s remodel it didn’t get much use, the officers said, largely because it was an ugly shade of purple and sparsely decorated.
“When I (first) came into the room, I looked around and no one was in here,” McGrath said. “I asked the girls why, and they were like, ‘Well, we don’t really have a lot to do in here.'”
That’s changed now, thanks to the officers’ vision.
With dozens of movies to choose from — “Hocus Pocus” played on a large TV Thursday afternoon — and the Just Dance video game available for the girls to bop around to, McGrath said she hopes the room will be used for years to come.
The officer also said she hopes the space, and the work she and Nicholson put into it, will send a message that police officers are more than just “a robot in a uniform.”
“The first time we came in here, the majority of the kids’ response was, ‘Oh my gosh the police are here, what’s wrong? Is someone getting arrested?'” McGrath said. “Their interaction, or the interaction they haven’t had with police, is all perceived as negative.”
McGrath’s and Nicholson’s goal was to change that perception, so the girls and boys at the PAL realize officers are people who “just happen have a different outfit on,” Nicholson said.
“That’s the stigma that we’re trying to break — that we’re not just 911,” he said. “We’re trying to get out in the community and smile and wave and play basketball and paint rooms, whatever we can offer outside of taking a report.”
The New Castle County Police Department isn’t the only local agency to emphasize community policing.
As the effort to change the public’s perception of police has become a priority in many cities and towns, other Delaware departments have reiterated their commitment to more positive police-citizen interaction.
In a March sit-down with The News Journal, Middletown Police Chief Robert Kracyla said he planned to implement community policing models that he found successful in his time at the Seaford Police Department.
And, when Robert Tracy took over as head of the Wilmington Police Department in 2017, he, too, promised his officers would engage more with the community.
For New Castle County police, the process of renovating the PAL girls room was the perfect opportunity to further the community engagement push.
“(During renovation), I had music playing on my phone, I still have selfies the girls were taking on my phone — I think it helped them realize, ‘Hey, (officers) listen to the same kind of music we do, they take pictures just like we do,'” McGrath said.
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com