A different way to police: catch kids doing good and give “positive tickets”

Police officers typically show up in kids’ lives after they or someone they know get in trouble with the law. So it was no surprise that Ward Clapham, a veteran of Canada’s national police force, kept hearing school kids describe police officers as hostile and distrusted “hunters.”

Clapham wants to flip that script. He’s advocating for the police to add a wholly unexpected practice to their repertoire: proactively “catch” young people in the middle of good acts and reward them for it. Dubbed “Positive Tickets,” these citations for positive behavior can also be made redeemable for food, fun activities, or some other prize.

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A scene out of Canada

As Clapham explains, the positive reinforcement strategy is meant to be quite unlike the traditional policing paradigm—a punitive corrective system that reacts only after something bad has happened, which he worried fueled community distrust and undermined efforts to prevent crime.

Thus the broader value of the Positive Tickets initiative isn’t just the good behavior it celebrates and promotes, such as wearing safety helmets or helping elderly neighbors. As he says:

“It’s not about how many tickets are redeemed. The ticket is the gateway to the relationship. What’s most important is that the ticket is a positive event, and when the youth sees the officer the next time, it will start off on a positive note.”

Canada isn’t America, of course, and Positive Tickets isn’t the grand solution to the deep injustices and problems plaguing law enforcement in America. The experimental initiative also isn’t meant to distract from core reform movements, such as Campaign Zero, or to enable broken police jurisdictions to gain good publicity without the necessary changes. That said, as part of broader efforts to change the way police officers view the citizens in their community and vice versa, the encouraging results out of Clapham’s jurisdiction are worth trying to replicate:

“The Richmond RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] Detachment, where I worked, was handing out 40,000 positive tickets a year (a 3 to 1 ratio compared to violations). As a result of several youth prevention initiatives, including positive tickets, our youth-related service calls dropped by almost 50%, keeping more than 1,000 youth out of trouble with the law. We have maintained a similar level over the years.

But that’s not the rewarding part. The part that makes it worthwhile is pulling into a parking lot full of kids and instead of running away from me, they swarm me. The rewarding part is driving down the street, looking out my window at some kids, and having them wave at me. The real result is seeing a youth who was on the edge of crime now far from it because he or she made a friend with one of my officers through positive tickets. The payoff is that kids don’t feel I am hunting them anymore; they see me as a friend.”

A few places in the United States are trying out the model, including Bernards, New Jersey, Federal Way, Washington, and Walpole, Massachusetts. For more information, see PositiveTicketing.com; “Positive Ticketing for Youth,” Strategies For Youth; and “Positive tickets: a new way to police,” Guardian. USA Today’s video about the Positive Tickets initiative in a St. Louis community can be found here.