“More than four million youth who are 16 and 17 years old have face-to-face interactions with law enforcement each year.” This data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics was part of a 2018 report titled “Police-Youth Engagement.” The document, generated by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, focuses on the opportunities and challenges police officers face when interacting with youth in their communities.

Making a case for the positive influence officers can have, the report stated, “Concerned adults, mentors, and role models can assist adolescents in achieving social competence and reducing problem behavior. Police officers are in a strong position to take on this role of influencing youth and promoting positive and productive outcomes when they interact. A law enforcement officer who builds a good relationship with youth can be a strong, protective figure for them.”

For Major Etta Gray of the Milledgeville, Georgia Police, the research supports what she’s practiced all along - thoughtful connections with youth that help them build their character and develop self-esteem.

A 32-year veteran of the force, Gray has been an active proponent of youth-police engagement programs that foster positive self-esteem in young people and positive relationships between young people and police.

In 1999, Major Gray founded the Junior Police Academy, a summer camp designed to teach children about avoiding drugs, gangs, peer pressure, and the importance of making good life choices.

Activity-wise, the campers learned the basics of CPR, instructions on how and when to use the 9-1-1 emergency system, and fire safety training.

But the camp’s underlying purpose was to give its young participants experience working with local law enforcement and emergency personnel in a relaxed, supportive setting. Through direct experience, these young people were given the opportunity to forge relationships with law enforcement officials and gain insight into what civic service entails.

Starting with only 25 students in 1999, the Milledgeville Junior Police Academy now has almost 150 students per year.

Committed to improving her community through her work with young people, Gray shared that she was raised in a family steeped in the principles of giving back to the community. "Getting into law enforcement was my tool, my avenue, to continue to do what I was born to do.”

In 2016, Gray spearheaded the establishment of Milledgeville’s Specialized Patrol unit. Two of the unit’s 13 programs, Mentors In Blue (M.I.B.) and Gang Resistance Education And Training (G.R.E.A.T.) reflect Gray’s focus on relationship building and prevention education.

Mentors In Blue partners law enforcement officers with at-risk youth in the community to be their mentors. Gray explained that for a mentee, “having someone to talk to and trust, makes her feel special.”

The same year, Major Gray was certified to teach G.R.E.A.T., a school-based, officer-instructed classroom curriculum with multiple components for middle and elementary school students and families.

Through the G.R.E.A.T. curriculum, students learn decision-making skills, different strategies for managing anger, how to identify a trustworthy adult, and how to respect individual and group differences.

When asked why service was the core driver of her decades-long commitment to youth, she replied “I want to do better for my community and the people I come in contact with. I have a passion to help and to serve that’s been instilled in me from childhood. That is my mission in life, just to serve others. I truly believe that is why I was put here - to serve others and to impact their lives positively and forever change them in a better way.”

For her life-long dedication to improving the lives of young people, Major Etta Gray received a Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service Benefiting Local Communities in 2020. She was nominated by ​​WGXA, Macon, GA.