Kids, Community & Cops Program
Early in 2018, Little Free Library reached out to its most experienced participants in the Kids, Community & Cops Program to capture best practices that other law enforcement agencies could use as they start up their own programs. Together these agencies steward more than 50 Little Libraries and represent 10 years of experience working with the Little Free Library organization’s book-sharing programs.
Participating officers included:
- Mike Kirchen, Minneapolis – Part of the Community Engagement Team (CET) at the Minneapolis Police Department assigned to the youth committee. (Within CET, ten officers are assigned to different committees including African American, Latino, Native American, LGBT, and youth.)
- Heidi Stoeklein, Los Angeles – Officer in charge of the Community Safety Partnership Program in South Los Angeles. She is responsible for a team of ten officers who are focused on community outreach, youth programs, school outreach, and critical enforcement.
- Keith Sulzer, Cleveland – Captain in the Community Policing Unit and liaison to the Cleveland Police Foundation, a 501c3 charity and the official charity of the Cleveland Police.
- Darin Szilagy, Detroit – Chief Duty Officer and in charge of police operations citywide after hours
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What are the benefits of participating in Kids, Community & Cops?
- Illiteracy and crime are closely related. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level (Begin to Read website.) Police officers are in a unique position to promote and encourage literacy.
- Little Free Library’s book-sharing boxes organically bring a sense of community and provide an opportunity for police to connect with the community through non-traditional community outreach.
- Police officers need to get involved in their communities in more than a police capacity, and this is a perfect avenue for involvement.
Does Kids, Community & Cops integrate into other community policing programs?
This program easily fits into existing community policing programs. A Little Library can provide a center point for community outreach by giving officers a reason to positively interact with youth and families outside of law enforcement actions. In Los Angeles, the Little Libraries have provided a bridge to other programs the police offer and they are a part of school field trips: schools schedule station tours and come to the LFL in the station for a reading with the officers.
How do agencies fund their Little Free Library book-sharing boxes?
Even though the strengths of a Little Free Library book-sharing program can be easily understood, few city and law enforcement budgets can fully fund a Kids, Community & Cops effort. This makes securing revenue from external sources often a necessity, especially for startup.
One or several of the following approaches may be helpful once leadership is convinced it’s okay to seek alternative funding:
- Apply to community-centered grant programs.
- Reach out to a local police-centered foundation or auxiliary support program; they may help in raising funds or be a funding source themselves.
- Approach civic and fraternal organizations such as Rotary and Lions Clubs.
- Ask local businesses to participate.
- If you want to build Libraries yourselves, you could partner with big-box retailers like Home Depot or Lowe’s or your local hardware store for supplies. A local carpenter union or shop class could offer access to tools and volunteer labor. In some communities the officers themselves help build Libraries.
- Try reaching the community through social media. Explain what you want to accomplish and provide a path for donations.
- Your local media can be extremely helpful in spreading the word and drawing funding from a community; they are often seeking positive stories about people doing good for their communities.
- When asking for donations, using literacy statistics can be particularly helpful in establishing the need. The Internet offers numerous sites that offer data; for starters, visit:
- Find out if your city has local nonprofits focused on literacy, learning, and youth; such partnerships can be helpful in identifying revenue sources as well as for maintaining the program.
Where do law enforcement agencies place the book-sharing boxes?
Setting up a book-sharing box at the precinct station or headquarters—either indoors or outdoors—is a natural starting point, whether the program is starting with a single installation or a number of locations. An outdoor location provides a connection point with neighbors and passers-by while indoor locations can be helpful in providing an activity for children who are at the station while their parents are dealing with stressful situations.
Some agencies choose to place Little Free Libraries in nearby neighborhoods or commercial areas; this gives officers a positive reason to visit a location on a regular basis.
Sometimes agencies partner with schools or other civic organizations to share the setup and stewardship of Libraries or “adopt” existing Libraries. All of these options provide the agency with opportunities for positive interaction with community institutions as well as with individual book-sharing patrons.
Specific locations include:
- Station lobby or community room
- Police medical and personnel facility
- Sex crimes and domestic violence unit
- Police training center
- Near schools and other settings that may have kid traffic
How do Mobile Libraries fit into the program?
The Little Free Library nonprofit recently introduced a portable, tote-style Library into its collection. Officers can carry them in their squad cars to settings where the public congregates for events or during certain times of the day or week. A magnetic sign on the side of the squad car signals that “We Share Books” and attracts kids, giving another positive point of interaction. Early reports are that kids love it.
How is Little Free Library’s book-sharing program introduced and promoted to the community?
The Little Free Library nonprofit encourages a launch celebration to announce a new book-sharing location. The public and press can be invited to the grand opening through the agency’s normal communications channels; social media also is beneficial. Many find that the press responds well to the news releases–especially when there’s the promise of a photo opportunity showing officers reading to kids or similar interactions.
How do officers and police leadership respond to Little Free Library book-sharing?
Once officers experience a book-sharing box in action, they appreciate the value it brings to the station. In some agencies there may not be a lot of officers interested in the “softer side” of policing, but, as Keith Sulzer in Cleveland pointed out, when they “saw kids in the lobbies reading … instead of running around and being miserable, it makes sense to them.” In other settings, officers easily adopt the Libraries and even take the time to read to the children.
Once a book-sharing box is set up, how much work is it to manage over time?
A Little Free Library book-sharing box does need to be monitored and maintained for it to be effective. Usually there is a person or team who takes responsibility for checking the Library from time to time to see that it’s in good condition and stocked appropriately. Generally, though, it’s not a large amount of time and is integrated into officers’ other work. Do plan, however, on regular maintenance (cleaning, repair, and re-painting, etc.) to keep the box in good condition.
Volunteer stewards or young cadets can be engaged to keep an eye on things on a day-to-day basis and can report on the need for books. This is particularly helpful for book-sharing boxes that are remote from a station.
How busy is a typical book-sharing box (or boxes)?
Once the public becomes familiar with the Little Free Library box and how it works, it can become quite active, particularly if it’s in a setting with a lot of foot traffic or in the lobby of a busy station. It is not unusual for a privately set up book-sharing box to experience a book turnover rate of one or two a day, but some busier settings see much higher rates of activity; a busy lobby may see almost continuous use.
How many books are needed to keep the book-sharing box full? Where do the books come from?
One of the key concepts of the Little Free Library book-sharing movement is that a neighborhood participates in the sharing activity. That’s where the “Take a book. Share a book” theme comes into play. In reality, neighborhoods where books are scarce will need more external support to maintain a supply of books in the book-sharing box while more affluent locations may be largely self-sufficient. Cleveland police report going through 2,000 books in three years.
For station settings, and especially where book-sharing occurs indoors, the responsibility will fall more to the agency to maintain the supply. Still, engaging the community in stocking the Library regardless of location can provide a meaningful and ongoing catalyst for police-neighborhood interaction.
These methods have been successful in collecting books for Little Libraries.
- Ask for book donations via social media
- Hold occasional book drives
- Post a “books wanted” message on the Library itself
- Engage the local schools and public library to participate in book sourcing
- Encourage officers and staff to participate in bringing in books to share
- Check with local literacy and educational programs
- Publishers and authors sometimes respond to requests for books and sometimes respond quite generously
- National literacy and book-supply nonprofits including First Book and Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) make books available at very low cost. Check out their websites. RIF and Little Free Library have teamed up to create this page of books selected for Kids, Community & Cops. It includes an order button as well as tips on reading to kids and other resources.
What activities have been successful in increasing engagement with Little Libraries?
The Little Free Library organization has seen a number of activities that can further connect officers with their communities in association with book sharing. These range from occasional or regular storytimes for kids to book swaps and other efforts, often conducted in partnership with another organization.
A good place to start is with the local school system. Agencies have been successful in reaching out to school principals to set up an opportunity to talk about safety and the importance of education, and include reading to the students as part of the program. Los Angeles has been successful in bringing students to stations via field trips and incorporating a reading activity into the visit.
What final advice do you have for an agency considering participation in Kids, Community & Cops?
Heidi Stoeklein, Los Angeles: “Working with LFLs is not a lot of work for a lot of gain. Policing isn’t just about fighting crime, it’s about building trust and relationships. LFL is an easy way to do both. There are so many great benefits, but it’s almost hard to know what to expect until you do it. One important element is to work to identify the right officers to get involved—they should be naturally interested in the softer side of policing. You can’t force it on someone who doesn’t want to do it—they should have a natural leaning toward passion for youth, kids, community. It’s critical to the success of the program. Officers need to have time and passion to spend time in the community—beat officers are usually good candidates because of their schedule/responsibilities.”
Keith Sulzer, Cleveland: “It sounds like a no-brainer, but work closely with local libraries. They have many resources and support. I wanted to be sensitive to the city library system so I did not get them involved until later.”
Darin Szilagy, Detroit: “This is a simple program to start. Just do it!”