The St. Paul Police Department and various partners are getting ready for a holiday event that aims to bridge the gap between children and police.
The "Shop with Cops" program pairs local children from the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods with police officers on a shopping trip at a Target store. The children are given gift cards that they use to buy presents for their families.
Officers get the chance to share a shopping cart with young people whom they might not ordinarily meet, said Police Chief Tom Smith, who spoke today at a fund-raiser luncheon hosted by the Midway Chamber of Commerce.
Since it began 13 years ago, the annual event has grown five-fold. Smith said it's important for his department to win the trust of low-income families and communities of color.
"They might be African-American, Hmong. They might be white, they might be Native American, they might be Somali," he said. "It's not so much about the celebration of Christmas as it is about family and the relationship with those officers."
The event has grown from about 50 kids when the program started more than a decade ago, to about 250, said organizer Arnie Curiel, who has been involved with the program since it started.
Curiel said the event grew out of an idea to engage children as young as 5 years to repair strained relationships between police and inner-city communities.
"Typically the first time a kid might meet a police officer is when they're responding to maybe a crime, domestic violence, some sort of situation like that," he asid. "We want to take that stigma away from the police officers and show that kids in the neighborhood that cops are people, too, and that there's another way you can interact with police officers besides that."
Those interested in volunteering or donating toward the Dec. 7 event can visit the program's website at shopwithcops.com.