Fourth-graders from McKinley Elementary School had some unusual playmates on Saturday — officers with the Bakersfield Police Department.

Around a dozen officers and more than 50 kids came out to the school on Saturday for the first Kids & Cops event. Officers were partnered with a team of students and participated in games together, such as tug of war, a water balloon toss, three-legged races and more.

“We want the kids to have a positive connection with the Police Department,” said John Sullivan, who organized the event as part of his involvement with the Kiwanis Club of Westchester. “Gang culture is a major issue in Bakersfield, and kids are gravitating into gangs in big numbers.”

Sullivan said he got the idea for the event last year after learning about a similar event created by another Kiwanis club. He presented the idea to his club and drafted a business plan, which was approved, and approached the Bakersfield City School District about the event.

“My idea was to have the district identify a school in an area that has a high gang demographic, and McKinley was chosen,” Sullivan said. “The district said fourth-graders are at an age where they’re malleable in being able to influence them in positive way. By fifth grade and above, they could already start moving in a negative direction.”

McKinley Principal Rona Chacon-Mellon said that when the fourth-graders were first notified about the event weeks ago, they were excited but also a little nervous.

“The kids didn’t know what to think in the beginning, but they’re very excited and very competitive,” she said. “They’re having so much fun and seem really happy. I love seeing all of their smiling faces. They’re incredible kids and they deserve this.”

Besides the games themselves, the kids also were treated to breakfast and lunch provided by a local McDonald’s. The Police Department also gave a short presentation about bike and pedestrian safety to the students.

All participants earned a T-shirt and goodie bags handed out by the department. Each student in the three teams who earned the most points in the games won gift cards to Walmart.

Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh attended the event and said a few words to the teams before the start of the games.

“I’m so proud that you came out on a Saturday morning bright and early to be here to join hands with our police officers, to join hands with the Kiwanis Club and with your neighborhoods,” she said. “Let’s work together to keep our neighborhood safe and to support one another.”

Goh emphasized to the students that police officers are not people to be feared but rather provide safety and security.

“I am always so glad when I’m surrounded by police officers because I know that I can always count on people who really care about our community,” she said. “We want to keep our neighborhood and our family safe; by all of us working together, that can happen.”

Assistant Police Chief Greg Terry, who attended Kids & Cops, said community events like Saturday’s are very important in improving the relationship between police officers and the community.

“Ultimately, it’s about establishing a relationship with our community, exposing the community to the officers and letting them learn from each other,” he said. “We recognize that children walking through the school doors every day has a direct effect on our community and how safe it is, as they grow and become more educated and go out and serve the community.”

Terry said that while the department has participated in many community events over the years, the games aspect of Kids & Cops made it different.

“Putting officers on the teams with the children is a unique thing. It gets them to problem-solve and work together,” he said. “You’re really having some good discussions and good demonstrations of what teamwork is, what it requires. These are skills the kids will use for the rest of their lives.”

Sullivan said the goal is to have Kids & Cops to grow and become an annual event.

Joseph Luiz can be reached at 661-395-7368. Follow him on Twitter: @JLuiz_TBC.

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