By Gerhard Schneibel

When officers from DeKalb County’s North Precinct showed up at Woodward Elementary School on Curtis Drive for lunch Feb. 6, they were the main attraction for more than 100 hungry children.

The officers who attended “Lunch With a Cop” are members of the county’s interactive community policing unit, which combats crime by improving the relationship between the department and the community.

“We try to think outside the box,” Officer Christopher Poythress said. “We can talk to the community and find out what their issues are and what’s wrong. Our mission is to let the community be aware of their surroundings.”

The officers also recently had lunch at Ashford Park Elementary School. Being in contact with young people helps build a connection between police and the community at an early age. If people trust the police and approach them about problems and concerns, crime can be prevented, the officers said.

Woodward Principal Ken Bradshaw said he thinks having the officers come for lunch brings a “sense of security.”

“Oftentimes our students see officers as friendly, supportive and helpful, but sometimes there are stereotypes. This is a great opportunity for the officers to interact with the students positively,” he said. “Having contact with the officers early in life will provide them the opportunity to see that officers’ No. 1 priority is to support them, support the community, support the family and that they’re there for emergencies. Sitting down and talking to the officers one on one helps them understand the roles and responsibilities of law enforcement officers.”

Officer Gabriel Hoskins said the interactive community policing unit is on call around the clock. Officers drive their police cruisers home to make their presence known, and they give citizens their cellphone numbers. If something comes up, they can let their sergeant know they’re putting on their uniforms again to go back out on the streets.

Hoskins also said he enjoys working part time as a security guard at high school basketball games throughout his precinct, which includes Brookhaven.

“What we try to do is just bridge the gap,” he said. “The worst part of our job is we have to take bad guys to jail, but we do know not everybody’s bad. We’re just trying to make sure you’re doing everything right and staying safe.”

Hoskins said interactive community policing is an around-the-clock job, but “being a police officer is exhausting, period.”

“Lunch With a Cop keeps me motivated to be a police officer,” he said. “I love seeing people. I love seeing kids smile and helping people.”

Teachers also can use Lunch With a Cop as an incentive for good attendance, grades and behavior.

Sgt. Brian Calamease, who heads up the interactive community policing unit, said positive reinforcement at an early age helps counteract TV stereotypes about police. “We want the kids to see the Police Department in a positive light, to interact with them, to answer their questions. And then we interact with the counselors and the teachers, and we just try to be a positive influence.”