Whenever Burnaby RCMP Const. Kwame Amoateng is called to deal with a young shoplifter, he remembers an important moment in his own life when he was just 16.
“I got myself in trouble at a grocery store,” he tells the NOW. “I think it was a chocolate bar that I had taken from the store.”
Born in Ghana, Amoateng had moved to Canada when he was eight years old and grew up in the tough Rexdale area of Toronto.
He can’t remember the name or even the face of the officer who responded to his shoplifting call, but he’s never forgotten his advice.
“He basically was bold enough to tell me that being a person of colour you may be at a disadvantage for certain things in life and you only make it worse if you don’t do things positive to help your life,” Amoateng says. “It was very bold, especially coming from a Caucasian police officer to be able to say that and be honest about it.”
The encounter was a game changer for young Amoateng.
From that point on he decided to pursue a career in law enforcement, eventually studying criminal justice at Ryerson University, working as a loss prevention officer and finally joining the RCMP five years ago.
As a member of Burnaby RCMP’s community response team, he often leans on his experiences as a youth, including the shoplifting incident.
“Even today when I go to shoplifter calls, I tell this story every time. I say, ‘You’ve been caught stealing today, but don’t you think that this is the end of you because, about 18 years ago, I was right here with you.”
Knowing firsthand what a profound difference even a single interaction with a positive role model can make, Amoateng – along with his police partner Const. Alex Poirier – recently ran Burnaby RCMP’s first-ever soccer camp.
The five-day camp at Edmonds Park from Aug. 28 to Sept. 1 drew about 18 kids, mostly from the Hillside Gardens housing complex – home to a diverse mix of families, including many newcomers and refugees.
Amoateng (or just Kwame, to the kids) has become well known in the area since his days as a general duty officer.
“I’d go into this neighbourhood for a call, and the kids would basically swarm me – and not in a bad way,” he says. “They’re curious. They want to know who you are, who you’re looking for, what you’re doing.”
The soccer camp, aimed at kids aged eight to 12, was designed to build on the positive attitude most youngsters that age still have toward police, Amoateng says, and to give them something to do while their parents are at work.
Some of the kids’ older siblings have already found themselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system, according to Amoateng, so the camp was also a chance to provide the younger ones with other, more positive role models.
“You can’t influence everybody and you can’t help everybody, but you have to at least try,” he said.