Hey Mom - I'm Going for a Ride with the Cops

Article excerpt

Bill Tracey is a gung-ho police officer intent on cutting down on adolescent mischief. But not through intimidation.

"When I was a kid we ran from the police," says the Stoughton, Mass., crime-prevention officer. "Now that I'm an officer I like to have the kids run to us."

A dozen or more children do just that on most Saturday mornings, drawn to the Stoughton police station by a trailer full of mountain bikes. "I'd rather attend to {crime} prevention now than apprehension later," says Police Chief Phillip Dineen of the bicycle rides at a nearby state park. The Stoughton police are part of an emerging - and sometimes controversial - trend in crime prevention: cops hanging with kids. While similar forms of youth outreach have been going on in New York City, for example, for decades, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) reports that recreation is playing a growing role in local community policing and delinquency-prevention strategies. In some cases, it's fueled by additional state and federal funds. In others, spurred by tight local budgets. Safe playing partners For parents and children, a sense of security is one of the attractions, says Dean Tice, executive director of the NRPA. "Among urban youth, for example, public parks rank equally with home as the place perceived as the most safe." Sixth-grader Jason Vanston agrees with that perspective. "The kids here feel safe because there are cops around and they know nothing can happen to them," says the youthful participant in Stoughton's police-run after-school open gym. At this point, it's too early to know whether this new era of cops connecting with kids on mountain bikes, skateboards, or in the gym will lower crime rates. But many experts agree that most juvenile crime occurs in the critical 3-to-6 p.m. after-school period. And the jury is out on the long-term prospects for this unusual arrangement between town departments. The NRPA warns of the "risks of merging agencies and professionals with different philosophies and mandates." Steven Sampier of the Broward County, Fla., sheriff's office concurs. "The toughest element to develop ... is the police agency willingness to give up some control and participate as equals with parks and recreation." Still, this willingness to meet young people halfway represents a sea change from the attitudes rooted in the1960s, when police policies emphasized arrest over mentoring. "We ended up with a generation of police who basically backed away from any kind of relationship with youth, and now I think the police are moving back to trying to reestablish those relationships," says George Kelling, criminology professor at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. In doing so, new crime-prevention models are surfacing. Police Chief Lonald Lott of Turlock, Calif., oversees one such model, which he speaks of as the municipal equivalent of the "blended family." Forced by fiscal constraints to downsize government, the town took the radical step of making the parks and recreation department part of the police department. Chief Lott acknowledges that this set up a "major clash of cultures" between police officers, who he says are big on policy and chain-of-command, and recreation professionals, who are generally not. Both departments, however, have a strong interest in connecting with youths. "From a social standpoint," Lott says, this move is a means of "helping kids grow up and be productive members of the community. From a police perspective, I'm simply trying to manage the risk factor. I'm reducing the opportunity for kids to become involved in deviant behavior." In addition to running team sports leagues, Turlock has numerous other youth offerings: a badminton club, judo and karate, a mobile recreation unit (Rec on Wheels) that visits different neighborhoods, and bicycle safety rodeos. A multifaceted after-school program called Infinity Rocketeers - which includes snacks, homework help, and activities - is about ready for liftoff. …

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