ORLANDO, Fla. – When Orlando Police Youth Liaison Officer Gladys Justiniano first met J.W. on a street corner on Orlando’s East side, he was in trouble. Orlando police had been called after a report of a robbery.
“He was very quiet, especially around his friends,” Justiniano said. “It’s all about the peer pressure, acting cool, being cool. But I know that underneath all that he really wanted to head in the right direction.”
Justiniano said 14-year-old J.W. -- not his real name -- knew he’d made a wrong decision and admitted his mistake.
“You know he reminds me a lot of my son,” Justiniano said. “So when I made contact with him, I really wanted from the bottom of my heart to help him out.”
And that’s why Orlando PD’s Youth Liaisons exist.
Earlier this year, the Orlando Police Department asked for volunteers - officers who want to connect with juveniles instead of just arresting them.
The PD issued a challenge to its new Youth Outreach Liaison officers: get to know the kids, figure out why they’re making bad decisions and provide resources, including friendship and mentoring, to give them other options and encourage them make better choices.
Officer Justiniano signed up immediately.
“I’m not looking for recognition or to be on the news, I just want to help, that’s all,” Justiniano said. “It’s to show them that we are here for them, we’re not here to take him to jail. I mean police officers, yes, do we chase after bad guys and take them to jail yes, yes but we do love reaching out to the community.”
Justiniano said as the Outreach Officers got to know J.W., they discovered his passion to become a paramedic.
“He had a family member that passed away, a brother that passed away, so I think that he feels that he wants to grow up to be able to help people so they don’t pass away like his brother did,” Justiniano said.
Justiniano arranged for J.W. to sit in on a class the teen Fire Academy.
“I picked him up, took him there, and we brought him back home, with approval of course,” Justiniano said. “But I wanted to make sure that he had the resources that he needed.”
That was the beginning of a mentoring friendship. And a partnership.
Justiniano regularly gives J.W. a ride to school if he needs it. She plays basketball with him. And she motivates him.
“He plays the PlayStation,” Justiniano said. “We made an agreement with him that if he didn’t get into any more trouble we would get him this one basketball game. There’s a thing called positive reinforcement and if you mess up, okay, everybody messes up, we’re not perfect. But if you can show us that you’re going down that right path, they’re surprised at the end of the rainbow.”
Her focus now is helping J.W. stay on track through high school and getting him through the next four years. When he’s old enough, she will help him apply to the Fire Academy.
“He has the potential to be a great kid, just at that moment made the wrong decision,” Justiniano said. “And we’re here to help you go down that road and make better decisions.”
To find out more about the Orlando Police Department’s Youth Outreach program, email them: firstname.lastname@example.org
Currently, there are 23 OPD Youth Outreach Liaisons.