“Old Time D.C.,” a nostalgia-filled Facebook page, recently stirred a distant memory that struck a chord, given current events.
“Who remembers MPD’s Officer Friendly?” one poster asked last April, referring to the program's run in Washington D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department. More than 250 replies erupted.
“I do,” one person wrote. “He warned us to be Safe Street Walkers and to look out for Stranger Danger.”
“Officer Friendly would use an easel to draw good lessons like, ‘Look both ways, live more days,’” another participant wrote.
“Officer Friendly should’ve never left the schools,” wrote another.
Carlton Edwards then stopped the reminiscing with a pointed question: “I remember we used to like the cops. WHAT HAPPENED?”
Micah Xavier Johnson’s July 7 sniper shootings of 14 Dallas policemen — five of whom he killed — capped days of debate and protest over the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These incidents have highlighted the widely torn relationship between police and black communities.
Many aim to repair this damage. Others, such as Morehouse University professor and journalist Marc Lamont Hill, have suggested that a healthy relationship never existed. For a certain generation, however, Officer Friendly programs built trust between cops and young people.
The Chicago Police Department created the Officer Friendly program in 1966. Amid marches and demonstrations, it was designed to address anti-police sentiment and offer children a kinder, gentler face of law enforcement. Officer Friendly reached more than 10,000 children that year, according to newspapers during that period.
The Sears Roebuck Foundation soon sponsored the successful Chicago program and underwrote others in some 200 U.S. cities through 1986.
Thomas J. Loftus, America’s first Officer Friendly, died in 2015 at age 79. His widow, Patricia, remembers the three years he befriended local school kids.
“In 1966, we had race riots, people not talking to cops, not liking the cops,” she said. “The Board of Education and the police department said, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to get into the schools and get the kids comfortable with the police department and learn how they can protect themselves from strangers and protect their families?’”
But since their 1960s through ’80s heyday, most Officer Friendly programs have been abandoned or defunded. Among other replacement community-policing programs, “school resource officers” have moved into middle and high schools. By then, students are likelier to encounter police in conflict situations.
“I remember Officer Friendly used to come from 1st to 4th grade, teaching us that the police were our friends,” Chris Newman wrote on Old Time D.C. “Then, in 5th grade, it went from ‘I am your friend’ to ‘I am not to be trifled with.’ That is a very jarring experience.”
Americans older than 40 might recall this program and its intent. But younger Americans only know “Officer Friendly” as a phrase, sometimes with conflicting definitions. Some equate Officer Friendly with numerous community-policing initiatives. Others use the phrase as a cynical synonym for zero-tolerance and increased militarization in law enforcement.
Even major police departments can be confused about Officer Friendly. Years of attrition and re-organization have erased institutional memories in many agencies.
Alice Kim, a D.C. Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson, reviewed photos and names of cops who served as Officer Friendly, to little effect. “MPD does not have an Officer Friendly program running currently, and from my understanding, we have not in the past, either,” Kim said.
Sears — now owned by KMart — also has left Officer Friendly behind. The retailer “is no longer affiliated with the program and has no information to provide,” said spokesman Brian Hanover.
Still, several small cities, including Wilmington, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and Green Bay, Wisconsin have maintained the program. Hampton, Virginia’s may be closest to the original.
“It’s been successful because of the relationships we build,” said Hampton police spokesman Sgt. Brian Snyder. “We find out what’s happening in their neighborhoods and in their homes, from bullying to abuse,” said Snyder, referring to students with whom Officers Friendly speak. “They grow up remembering their encounters with us. If we can change the mind of a juvenile now, the city of Hampton will be a better place 10 years from now.”
Fifty years after its start, Patricia Loftus still believes in the program. “We have the same problem happening now,” she said. “No communication between police and the community. Kids associate the police with tragedy and accidents. I think they need it in schools again. Kids should be able to go to a cop and not be afraid.”
Loftus may get her wish. As rampant street violence and high-profile police-abuse cases batter Chicago, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson suggests several solutions to this crisis. Among them — resurrecting Officer Friendly.