Tustin PD connects with community through fitness

By Jessica Peralta

In just two years, Heideman Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Jonathan Parker has already seen great improvements in students participating in Tustin PD’s Run with a Cop program.

“The program provides them with a safe space to enjoy exercise and fun games twice a week,” said Parker. “Beyond health and well-being, we’ve seen a much more connected community, a decline in behavior issues, and a desire [to be] an active member of Heideman Elementary.”

Organized by TPD Officer Matt Roque in 2015, the program focuses on an area near the school to help encourage positive police and community interaction.

“We just decided to try something new,” said Roque.

Tustin PD Officer Michael Carter runs with kids from Robert Heideman Elementary during the Tustin PD’s Run with a Cop.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Heading into its third year – the 10-week program starts back up in January and runs through March – TPD is gearing up for another strong year with some new additions.

With 140 students anticipated for the 2018 program, preparation actually begins in December with timed trials. This year the students will be broken up into different levels by way of color-coded shirts, based on their run times. Once they begin the program, they will once again be coached by police officers, as well as members of the running group, California Cruisers.

Greg Eisenman, a California Cruiser member and a reserve deputy with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, said “it was amazing” seeing the transformation in the elementary-schoolers.

“The kids started out by walking and complaining,” he said. “By the end of the period, they were running. … A lot of them were running two miles without stopping.”

In addition to longer-distance running and coaching, the kids get to participate in other running-related activities like relays – and even running out to pick up garbage from the school yard. Respect and responsibility are a big part of the program, too.

Tustin PD personnel and cadets from Golden West College Criminal Justice Training Center’s Class of 152 run with kids of Robert Heideman Elementary during the Tustin PD’s Run with a Cop.
File photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“We teach them respect and to listen closely, to watch us, to follow directions,” said Eisenman.

At the end of each session, the students are given a challenge – something like drinking more water or eating healthier – to keep them focused on bigger goals. The program ends with a carnival.

“A huge chunk of the department comes to the finale,” said Roque.

For those students who wish to go a step further, they can enter The Tustin Hangar Half Marathon & 5K on March 11. Last year, about 30 children participated in the 5K. California Cruisers will be fundraising to donate running shoes for kids who need them, do well in the program and plan to run in the 5K.

“A lot of the parents came out and ran with us, too,” said Roque.

For parents wanting even more physical fitness for their kids, TPD starts its Turkey Bowl, a five-week flag football program, in October, ending the day before Thanksgiving with a tournament and picnic lunch.

“It’s a lot of the same kids,” Roque said of participants in the Turkey Bowl and Run with a Cop.

Key members of Tustin PD’s Run with a Cop program include, from the Tustin Police Department, Officer Joseph Cossack, left, Officer Matthew Roque, Communications Supervisor Kristin Fetterling and Lt. Manny Arzate.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Lt. Manny Arzate said these kinds of programs are a unique form of crime suppression.

“You got to get to the ground levels…to the family, to the community,” he said.

While this is more of a long-term solution – where true results may not be seen for years, when children end up on track for college — there are some immediate noticeable benefits in the community.

“The trust has been instant,” said Roque of the positive feedback from residents.

In fact, Veronica Rivas, a community liaison representative for Heideman Elementary School, recalled one telling letter from a 6-year-old.

“I collected letters and drawings as presents to our officers during our first program and a very candid first-grader wrote: ‘I can’t believe I was scared of you before I knew you. I love you now!’” she said.

Rivas said it’s the school’s most popular program.

“Due to the mentorship they receive and friendship from our officers, they have also started to dream about being police officers and their parents have started to attend the Citizens Academy,” she said. “Seeing them stay in school after class also feels good because you know they are safe.”

TPD Officer Joe Cossack, who has been participating in Run with a Cop since it started, said he enjoys seeing how the kids progress throughout the program and how enthusiastic they are. He said he’s had children in the community that recognize him as a coach.

“That’s kind of the whole idea of the program,” he said, “to give them a role model to look up to.”

Said Parker: “At the annual awards dinner last year, our community liaison happily regaled the police with stories of how wonderful it is to see the kids ‘run to a cop’ when they arrive on campus for Run with a Cop or for community outreach purposes. And it’s true. The officers know the names of our kids. They demonstrate that they care for them. They’re connected now. And we’re hopeful that the long-term benefits will be monumental.”