For a moment, the walls came down for a group of Shepherd youths as they spoke to Chattanooga police officers.
Smiles spread across their faces Friday as they climbed into a SWAT team armored truck at the Amnicola Highway police headquarters. Some took turns trying on Kevlar vests.
One 16-year-old with an arrest record for attempted murder gingerly tried on a 30-pound vest worn by SWAT team members.
STARS (Shepherd Training Academics Respect Service) was formed this spring at the urging of residents in the neighborhood near the Chattanooga Airport who wanted to do something about the gang problem. All funding has come from residents.
The result has been outings every couple of weeks for neighborhood children between the ages of 11 and 18, said Malcolm Walker, president of the Shepherd Community Council."We're hoping these kids are on the right track and those who are not, we can reach," he said.
So far, they have taken a tour of downtown on the Chattanooga Ducks. They've walked the halls of the jail in Walker County, Ga. Plane rides over Chattanooga are in the works.
"They're on the edge where bad stuff is. These kids could go either way," said Chattanooga Councilwoman Carol Berz.
On Friday, the group toured the Chattanooga Police Department and met members of various units, including the bomb squad, SWAT team and K-9 unit. Some of the youths are affiliated with gangs; some have never encountered a police officer before.
"Some of the kids were doing minor things that could lead to major thing," Walker said. "I feel the attention we're giving them makes a difference."
And in a rare opportunity, the group had a chance to meet with Police Chief Bobby Dodd and ask candid questions.
"The cops beat on you," said the teen who earlier had tried on the Kevlar vest.
Dodd explained that officers are authorized to use one level of force above what people resisting arrest are using. He said if officers use excessive force, they are punished and sometimes fired.
"If you have problems like that, call internal affairs. Call my office," Dodd said.
The words fell on the teen, who sat with his friends as they ate pizza.
Berz, who regularly interacts with the group, said she believes the tour made a lasting impact. Many of the boys are at a crossroads, she said, and could go either way.
"You have a couple of kids who are very bright," she said, specifically referring to the teen who questioned Dodd. "He was the one who wanted to try on the equipment. How do you walk the line between trying to be cool and wanting to be a cop?"
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