If the Payson Police Department were required to take a class in teenage public relations, it would pass, but just barely. A town survey reveals most Payson teens have just a so-so view of the local police.
Police Chief Don Engler says that’s not good enough.
Recently, he visited the Payson High School and asked teens what officers could do better.
Not surprisingly, most were reluctant to speak up at a school assembly.
But later, through classroom visits and student e-mails, Engler gleaned that officers can come off as harassing when making traffic stops or checks at the skate park. And some students don’t understand the town code or even realize there is a curfew ordinance.
Engler said he realized the department could do a better job interacting with the youth and educating them on officers’ motives and the law they must enforce.
And now with no school resource officer at the high school due to budget cuts, he and other officers have to make more of an effort.
While reviewing results from a survey in November, Engler realized teens didn’t see police as he had hoped.
The town surveyed 628 citizens, including 212 students in the Payson Unified School District for the General Plan update. The town will hold another meeting on the plan next Tuesday, May 21, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Payson Public Library, 328 N. McLane Road, to unveil the draft plan prepared by consultants.
An earlier survey to guide the once-a-decade revision of the plan asked citizens for their opinions on the economy, town atmosphere, education, recreation and public safety.
On public safety, the majority of those surveyed felt “good” about personal safety, crime prevention and the police to citizen relationship.
Although most teens surveyed mirrored those views, 14- to 18-year-olds also said crime prevention was just “fair.”
And the survey revealed no one rated police work in town as “exceptional.”
“Even though I didn’t feel that we scored real poorly, I guess I was disappointed and hoped we would have scored even higher, especially with the younger people of the community because we try to interact with the youth of the community,” he said.
Engler met with the Payson Area Youth Advisory Committee three times and asked if they had heard concerns from teens around campus.
“But it became pretty obvious to me that they weren’t real representative of the student body as a whole, because they probably aren’t the kids that law enforcement might be contacting,” he said.
Engler realized he needed a way to talk to all of the students. He spoke at a recent assembly and told students that they are just as valuable a part of the community as their parents.
While visiting with students in classrooms later, he learned some students had had negative contact with officers.
One student asked why an officer had pulled them over when they had only briefly driven over the centerline.
Engler explained that an officer has a duty to make a stop when he sees potentially dangerous behavior. While this student hadn’t been drinking and wasn’t cited, it is not always the case.
If an officer ignored the behavior and “five minutes later I got a call of an accident and there are young people in that car that have been drinking and they rolled it and someone has been hurt or killed, how am I going to feel?” he said.
Officers would rather make the stop and come off as harsh if it might save someone’s life.
“I think just giving that different perspective and having the chance for them to state what is on their mind and help them understand our perspective gives them a basis for how we base our decisions,” he said. “You could see them thinking, ‘Wow, that makes sense.’”
Still, Engler said it is important officers show youth the respect and dignity they would want shown to them.
Another concern among some teens was harassment at the Rumsey skate park.
Because of reported criminal activity and citizen complaints, officers frequently stop there to talk with teens. Again, while this can come off as overbearing, officers are just doing their job, he said.
Other teens expressed concerns about the town’s midnight curfew.
One student asked if an officer would pull her over while driving home from a school function or driving to pick her parent up or taking a moonlit hike with friends.
Engler said a teen heading straight home after a school-sanctioned event would not get in trouble. They could also pick up a parent — from the hospital for example. However, making other stops would violate the curfew — and so would that midnight hike.
Officers can squelch concerns like this with education, he said.
“One of the things I think we can do better as law enforcement is use (stops) as an education tool where we explain that if there are concerns about that type of thing that we take a few extra minutes and answer those.”