BOSTON — When Kevin O'Leary became police chief in Oakland, Maine, seven years ago, he didn't anticipate a youth crime wave. But that's what he got. His officers were spending a lot of time policing teens and preteens, especially alternative-education students not on the college fast track.
The solution? Learning for Life, a recreational program just for this group. "Some of them haven't been in trouble at all," Chief O'Leary says, "but they just don't adjust well to school life. Some also are at a disadvantage economically."
The program allows off-duty police officers, teachers, and youths to meet on the slopes or waterways - instead of the streets.
"I wanted the kids to see us in a different light," says O'Leary. "We wear shorts and dungarees. We ski, we climb, we whitewater raft. The kids are learning people skills and trust through activities."
There was definitely some mistrust at first. "Kids are suspicious," O'Leary says. "They wonder what the underlying agenda is. 'Why are the police doing this?' They can pick out a phony a mile away.
"We had to explain to the kids that we're not in the spying business. We weren't out to bust them."
Is it working? Sometimes. One 16-year-old, upon meeting O'Leary, said she hated cops and was going to quit school. She eventually dropped her hostility and earned a college scholarship. Other kids who didn't want to talk to officers at first now want to go into law enforcement.
"But we've had failures too," O'Leary points out. "We had a kid get bagged for armed robbery. I still like him, though."
Some concerned citizens have asked why the police are rewarding kids for bad behavior.
"We're not," he replies. "If you misbehave in the month prior to a trip, if you have bad grades, altercations, or miss a lot of school, you don't make the trip. So it's not rewarding bad behavior, it's rewarding good behavior."
One challenge for a program of this kind, O'Leary acknowledges, is keeping it going. Not everybody, after all, wants to go winter camping with a group of 40 teenagers.
"This year there have been a couple of teaching changes and some police-staff shortages, so we've backed off a bit," he explains. "There's been kind of a lull in the program, but we're trying to get back at it again."