TAMPA — Tampa police Detective Shane Gadoury knew people sometimes viewed him with suspicion when he landed in their neighborhoods, dressed in a midnight black uniform and carrying a gun.
But then he met Maurice, an 8-year-old student from Oak Park Elementary, through a program designed to help stitch the often torn relationship between police officers and the communities they are sworn to protect.
"Bigs in Blue" is a partnership between Big Brothers Big Sisters Tampa Bay and the Tampa Police Department.
"Young people don't usually see positive contact with law enforcement," Gadoury said Thursday at a panel discussion about the program.
"What they typically see is us taking their loved ones away."
The nationwide program was started in 2017 by former Tampa mayor Pam Iorio, now president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
Just like the nonprofit's standard mentorship program, "Bigs" meet with "Littles" once a week at school, eat lunch, play a round of basketball or help with homework.
Gadoury volunteers, along with 34 other officers, deputies and non-sworn law enforcement personnel.
"Bigs in Blue" is set to expand this fall to the St. Petersburg Police Department and several other local agencies, including Zephyrhills, Port Richey and Dade City.
On a panel held at the Renaissance Center on Thursday, some of Tampa Bay's leading law enforcement officers and youth advocates weighed in on the need and potential impact of "Bigs in Blue."
The mentoring organization touts the program's ability to reduce crime and youth violence, enhance the quality of life for at-risk children and promote academics.
Iorio has said publicly that she was inspired to start the program to help improve what she felt was a growing distrust and skepticism between officers and residents.
One-on-one interactions could make a difference and help to change the conversation, said panelist Jane Castor, who worked in a similar mentorship program when she was Tampa police chief.
Officers involved in "Bigs in Blue" have been sharing their story to show the positive impact that caring adults in the law enforcement community can have on kids.
"When you're a police officer, a lot of times, you deal with 1 percent of people who are negative," Gadoury said. "You can get cynical. Ninety-nine percent of our interactions are with that 1 percent. That's why I want to continue to do this.
"Being in the neighborhood with the kids, you get to see how good people are."
Contact Tim Fanning at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at @TimothyJFanning.