STOUGHTON, MASS. — 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.
The police-recreation alliance, Lott says, has its advantages. For the police, it's beneficial to have professional recreation specialists on board to implement programs. The police, meanwhile, can help sell the public on funding them.
"If a recreation supervisor goes before a service club - Rotary, Kiwanis, etc. - and requests $10,000 for an in-line roller hockey program," Lott says, "he might walk away with 10 percent of what he was asking. But if a police officer is there to talk about the dangers of drugs and violence, you may walk away with all you asked for, and an additional five grand. All of a sudden we have a terrific blend."
One with potential cost savings, too, says Jane Adams, executive director of the California Park and Recreation Society. "Usually you can provide professional staff from the recreation and park department a little less expensively than you can from the police department due to the training required of police officers," she says.
Officer Kathy Wendling who serves in the community resource section of the Tucson (Ariz.) Police Department, says that working with recreational programming "expands our horizons. It makes us see the good as opposed to the negative from being on patrol all the time."
Captain Lewis Silvia, community policing coordinator in New Bedford, Mass., says that elementary-age children may look up to the police, but older youths sometimes view cops as "the bad guys who take their parents away or arrest their friends."
Professor Kelling says improved police-youth communications are an important end product - even in affluent communities, where teenage drinking parties are held when moms and dads are away.
"For the police to know the youth and penetrate that culture and influence them is terribly important," says Kelling. "I don't think it's the responsibility of the police to caretake kids, but at the same time they are often the first ones to discover and fulfill those needs, until the properly responsible agency moves in."
Recreational activities represent a neutral ground, where stereotypes can be dropped on both sides.
The idea here is to establish a rapport with young people, even the many in Stoughton that Police Chief Dineen calls "normal, no-problem kids."
Even though Mike O'Neill fits that description, the ninth-grader says he might be getting into trouble if it weren't for the police-run after-school program and the mountain-bike outings.
He took a training course at the police department to be an after-school helper and says he's become interested in police work from knowing a bunch of officers.
As for biking with the chief, he says, "That's definitely odd. Once you get to know him he's a great guy. All the cops joke around with you. It's not a stiff atmosphere. You feel really comfortable around them."
Crafts, karate, and good grooming
In Massachusetts, Stoughton's Cops and Kids program is one of 17 around the state that uses state grant money to fund supervised youth programs during nonschool hours. In Springfield, members of the police department's mounted patrol teach young people how to groom and care for horses. Uxbridge police run craft classes, a computer lab, and a skate park. And in Medford, swimming, karate, and vocational shop classes are on the Kids and Cops menu.
Many of the programs are school based, creating "an approachability between students and officers," says Charlie McDonald of the state's Executive Office of Public Safety. Teachers, he notes, often see other benefits - improved student grades, attendance, and personal behavior among participants in Cops and Kids programming.
In Turlock, Calif., the police have had a Police Athletic League program for 20 years, primarily for softball and boxing. However, Chief Lott says the program wasn't as effective as it should have been and it's now being expanded and revitalized.
In the past, Lott says, the challenge has been to find an officer capable of handling recreational programming. "You take a police officer trained in command presence and tactics, put him in front of 200 screaming, angry people and he's ready to take care of business," he explains. "But take the same officer and give him a program dealing with youth that places him in front of 20 kids and he's petrified."
Lott acknowledges, however, that within every police department some officers usually have an affinity for working with kids. These individuals may hold special positions as juvenile, crime prevention, or drug-education (DARE) officers. The challenge is in engaging other officers in the bridge-building that is at the core of community-policing efforts.
To do this, says Stoughton's Officer Tracey, requires identifying activities that appeal to both police and young people. "This way, what the officers do regularly on their own time they can do with kids."
For example, $7,000 was invested in a weight-training room at Stoughton's Hanson Middle School, so that off-duty officers and teens can pump iron together during a police-run after-school program.
In some cases, police departments offer compensating time or overtime pay as an incentive to get officers out of their patrol cars and mixing with young people.
Police say that the newfound rapport does pay dividends. "When we answer certain youth disturbance calls, the kids are a lot more receptive to what we have to say, a lot more cooperative and understanding," says Tracey.