Harris County sheriff visits TAPS Academy to speak with youth

Wednesday was a rare day at a Harris County juvenile lock-up. Residents there got a chance to visit face to face with the top law man in the county, Sheriff Ron Hickman. It was the latest in an ongoing effort to promote good will and communication between law enforcement and troubled teens, and urge them to find a new, positive path in their adult lives.

Many high ranking law officers visit the Teen and Police Service Academy (TAPS) every week, but this was Sheriff Hickman's first visit. The Harris County Sheriff's Office invited Fox26 to help them share an event most people haven't seen before.

For a bit of background, TAPS Academy in far West Harris County, holds nearly 100 residents, ages 13 to 17 years old. There are roughly 75 boys and 25 girls, who have been convicted of crimes, who are serving part of their sentence there.

They waited in groups of 25 to meet Sheriff Hickman. All were seated in their gray jumpsuits and white shoes or sandals until he entered the room. Someone yelled, "Chief!" and they all stood up, and remained standing for his entire visit.

"I had friends who were police officers back when I was 19 years old," Sheriff Hickman told them, after being asked why he became a police officer. "After listening to them, I found that being a police officer is a job that gives you the unique opportunity to make a difference in somebody's life every day."

Someone else wanted to know about the stripes on his uniform.

"One stripe for every 5 years," Hickman told him. "9 stripes there. 45 years. That's a long time."

Still another resident asked the sheriff how he felt about police killing innocent people.

"I'm not a big fan," Sheriff Hickman responded. There were some quiet chuckles as the sheriff paused. Then, the sheriff continued, "But first and foremost, we've got to define innocent. What did they do that caused them to be killed by the officer? Usually it's an encounter, right? So, what we encourage people to do, is, when you encounter an officer, if you comply with what they ask you to do, then we generally won't have the problems."

The media was not with the sheriff through all of his meetings with TAPS academy residents, so we asked him what was the most common question for him on that day.

"Many of them wanted to know how to deal with officers who where rough, or abrupt, or violent in their behavior. So we did talk about that," Hickman said. "But my approach was to explain to them that, most of the time, officers will treat you with as much respect as you allow them to."

We did hear the sheriff go into a little more detail on that subject with the residents.

"There's almost always someone around with a camera," he told them. "If we get a video that we know about, then we'll deal with it. That's how officers get fired. That's how they wind up being charged."

Can police and the citizenry start getting along better?

"I think we can do a lot better. All of us," the sheriff said. "As the President said yesterday, we ask too much of the police, and too little of the community."

TAPS Academy doesn't call itself a juvenile jail. It wants the residents to focus on education and positive change, not incarceration. The message is eliminating stereotypes, and bridging the gap between at-risk youth and police.

TAPS Co-Founder, Dr. Everette Penn, says the effort is paying off.

"We find they have more pro-social behavior," Penn told us after the sheriff's visit. "They think more highly of police officers, and their idea of being involved in crime goes down."

Sheriff Hickman and Dr. Penn say that this high-profile visit was planned several weeks ago. They say it wasn't put together because of recent tensions involving police/community relations. Nevertheless, the timing for the visit couldn't have been better.