Deputies Join Youths to Show Friendship That’s Behind Badge
By the time her adopted son had turned 7, Senaida Ortiz was almost ready to give him up.
Labeled a bully in school, Richard Ortiz had a reputation for “making other kids cry,” she said, and soon found himself in counseling.
“He was a little terror,” she said of Richard, now 9, who attends Nelson Elementary School in Whittier. Part of his problems stemmed from his experiences in seven foster homes and an orphanage he had been in by age 4, said Ortiz, who adopted him in 1980 because she didn’t think it was “fair for a kid to be raised in an orphanage.”
Worked Out Frustrations
But two years ago, exasperated by the youngster’s behavior, Ortiz turned to Santa Fe Spring’s boxing club to help Richard redirect his energies. While it helped him to work out frustrations in the ring, Richard was still shunned by peers and fellow boxers.
Though coaches and trainers encouraged his boxing, it wasn’t until December that Senaida Ortiz saw real improvement in her son. He began talking about sheriff’s Sgt. John Dredd, boasting that he had “a special friend” at the boxing club.
Dredd makes “Richard feel important. That means a lot to him,” she said.
To Dredd, it is part of his job.
He is one of 10 deputies from the Norwalk station who works part time for Santa Fe Springs in its Deputy Community Specialist Program. The idea is to “humanize” the deputies in the eyes of youths and young adults in the community by dealing with them in a non-threatening manner, said Fred Latham, assistant city manager. Deputies work four to 10 hours a week for the city in addition to their regular 40-hour shifts.
Positive Influence Sought
The city was looking for a way to put deputies in a setting where they can have a positive influence on the behavior of young adults, Latham said. The program is supposed to improve police-community relations, reduce gang activity and foster a positive image of law enforcement officers in the community.
Deanna Schnabel, the program’s coordinator, said the deputies work within existing city programs. They tutor children in the city’s two day-care centers; coach basketball, gymnastics and boxing, and assist in the Tiny Tots preschool and day camp recreation programs. The pay for the deputies--who are considered part-time city employees when they are working--starts at $15.60 an hour.
The program was started in 1981 when tensions were high between the community and the Sheriff’s Department. There was gang activity and frequent citizen complaints about police harassment.
After evaluating the Sheriff’s Department’s work, the city rejected the idea of forming its own law enforcement agency and convinced the county to assign one group of deputies to patrol Santa Fe Springs. The city formed the Deputy Community Specialist Program to get residents to meet deputies outside of their law enforcement roles.
Out of Uniform
By taking officers out of uniform and getting them involved with community activities, city officials felt the relationship between the community and sheriff’s deputies would improve.
The 4-year-old program will add a new component this month called “outreach,” in which two deputies will counsel targeted youths and develop a “big brother” relationship.
Capt. Lee Baca said he sees the deputy specialist program as paying dividends in the fight against crime.
“I can’t say it is strictly law enforcement efforts that did this,” said Baca, noting that other youth activity and recreation programs have helped. But “you can look around and find a higher degree of public confidence” in law enforcement, he said.
Baca cites statistics that show vandalism has decreased 33% and that fewer juveniles are being arrested now than five years ago. “The goal of preventing crime at earlier ages is being reached,” he said.
Fewer ‘Drive-By’ Shootings
Police officials also point to a decrease in gang activity, noting that, from 1981 to 1985, “drive-by” shootings dropped from 15 to 8 a year.
Residents are also complaining less about law enforcement officers, Latham said. Complaints from residents have dropped from an average of one or two a week to once a month, he said.
But for Senaida Ortiz, the program has been a godsend and she has personally thanked Dredd for the special attention he has given Richard, who is one of 13 people living in her Santa Fe Springs home.
Dredd, who is also the department’s liaison officer with the city, said he started working with Richard because he was “labeled as being bad” by fellow boxers. Dredd said he thought the treatment and remarks by the other other youths would “give him some kind of complex.”
Dredd targeted him as “one of the kids we could really work with.”
“We want kids to have positive contact. I’m a law enforcement officer but I’m there to help them,” said Dredd, who assists boxing coaches with setting up the rings, sparring with the youths and encouraging them. As with the other deputies who work in the program, the only thing that identifies him as a law enforcement officer is a white sport shirt with the Sheriff’s Department logo and the words “Deputy Community Specialist.”
The thrust behind the program is to “do something worthwhile for kids who are out there and need it,” Dredd said. Besides Richard, Dredd has also worked closely with a former “street fighter,” Eric Orozco, a 16-year-old student at Frontier High School in Whittier.
Orozco said the encouragement he has received from coaches and Dredd has led to his decision to continue training for boxing. “They keep telling me I have potential. I like boxing. It’s keeps me separated from a lot of things.
“I used to hang around with the wrong kind of people. Now I’m getting into boxing,” Orozco said.
He attributes his change in attitude to Dredd. He never before trusted law enforcement officers, he said.
“I had a different feeling toward them,” he said. “I didn’t like being around them at all.” But now, he said, he realizes that the deputies are “just trying to help us and encourage us to do the best for ourselves.”
Youths like Richard Ortiz and Orozco who need more one-to-one contact have been targeted for the outreach phase of the program. The outreach program calls for two deputies--Dredd and Phillip Moreno--to become “big brothers” to selected children.
The children will be referred by the city’s psychologist, Anthony Lopez, who will train the deputies. Targeted children will include those who have the “potential of becoming involved in a deviant kind of behavior” such as drug and alcohol abuse, gang activity and burglary, Latham said.
Lopez said the deputies will be “impromptu counsel models” who will provide advice when the youth needs it. They will have to be sensitive and listen with a “third ear” and respond to a child when given the opportunity, Lopez said.
Moreno, a sheriff’s deputy for 19 years, said that, although subjects may “get pretty heavy at times,” young people need a chance to talk things out.
“A lot of kids need it. Either the parents are separated or divorced, and they are left out in the cold. They need somebody” to talk to, he said.
When Moreno--who has been part of the Deputy Community Specialist Program since its inception--starts working as an outreach counselor, he will continue with the Tiny Tots program, where he works with 3- and 4-year-olds.
Helping young children is especially crucial because “they won’t be afraid of policemen or authority figures when they grow up,” Moreno said.
“A lot of them need . . . guidelines. They’re our future. Kids deserve the right to have an opportunity to be (the) best they can be,” Moreno said.
To many of the deputies, the time spent wearing their “community hat” pays off when they are on the beat.
Gil Flores, who assists coaches in the city gymnastics program, said: “What I get out of it personally is helping (to) deter crime before it happens. (We) sway kids to not choose an involvement in crime.”
Dredd added that he wants to help give these kids “some direction in their life.”
“I’m there because I want to be there. I’m not there to look over their shoulders and make them do right, but to encourage them and say I care.
“If I can have an impact on three or four kids in a period of one year, I feel I’ve done my job,” Dredd said.
But the program also gives deputies another window into the community.
“It’s not just cops and robbers. It gives me a chance to get involved with the other side. I’m not just seeing the bad but I’m seeing the good,” Moreno said.