Unit Targets Young Minds : Task Force Takes Battle Against Gangs, Drugs to Day -care Camps

Times Staff Writer

Naomi Fletcher is only 9 years old, but she was savvy enough to pop the right question to two Long Beach police officers: "What do you think is the best solution for gang violence?"

Cpl. Jim Dowdell perked up. This was one more chance to push his message.

"Good question," Dowdell told a group of 60 youngsters last week. The answer is "probably right here: You guys."

Officer Deborah Crockett added: "If you don't do it, and if all the kids we're talking to don't join, then (gang membership will) start to drop off."

Along with Long Beach firefighters, Dowdell and Crockett have repeated the same points over and over again this summer in a new program incorporated into some of the city's eight-week day-care camps.

Officers Used Props

The officers emphasized that the children could be anything they wanted--including cops or firefighters--if they stayed in school, off drugs and away from gangs. And to get their message across, the officers used some props, including a helicopter, the city's SWAT team and the Fire Department's jaws-of-life truck.

"If you think someday you'd like to be a firefighter, which is the greatest job on earth, you have to realize that you have to keep your background clean," Fire Inspector Jeff Reeb Unit Targets

Young Minds

Task Force Takes Battle Against

Gangs, Drugs to Day-Care Camps

By ROXANA KOPETMAN, Times Staff Writer

told the children at Coolidge Park.

The officers and firefighters visited eight parks, mostly in the more crime-troubled northern and central parts of the city, spending one week at each site.

Each day featured different activities and guests, such as paramedics who gave safety demonstrations and officers who brought their dogs. Officers and park personnel also took the kids on field trips, including a visit to the Los Alamitos Armed Services Center.

"They're at an impressionable age," Reeb said of the 5- to 13-year-olds. "We can have an impact now."

Chance to Make Impact

"In some neighborhoods," Dowdell added, "they may never see a police officer or a firefighter in a positive atmosphere. This may be the first time."

A question-and-answer session kicked off each week, and the children were anything but shy.

"Did you ever, like, arrest kids on drugs?" asked one little girl.

"The first person who I arrested (on drug charges), as a rookie officer, was a 13-year-old girl," Dowdell answered.

"Is it scary being a cop?" 11-year-old Praline Adam asked.

"Sometimes it is," Dowdell answered. "I wouldn't want to work with a partner who isn't afraid."

"What happens if, say, there is a gang shooting at you?" asked a boy.

"We would get out of the way. We're not super-cops," Crockett responded.

Explaining how the officers would seek cover, Dowdell added: "Our strongest weapon is our mind. That's why we have to keep it clear."

After the first morning, the officers traded their uniforms for jeans and DARE T-shirts, which they also distributed to every camper.

"We want them to realize that we're real people. We dress like they dress. And we can talk with them," said Crockett, who along with Dowdell works in the anti-drug DARE program year-round. "You look at some of these kids and say, 'My God, do they have a chance?' "

As a single mother to a 10-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, Crockett said she understands the pressure youngsters feel. "My son wants to be with the in-crowd, so I have to keep an eye on him," Crockett said. "I always tell him, 'You have to be yourself.' "

During the last two months, the officers have talked and played with about 600 children, according to Police Lt. Carroll G. Shelly, who organized the program. The $7,000-tab for the eight one-week camps was financed by Long Beach Youth Activities and DARE Inc., a nonprofit corporation set up this year to raise money for the DARE drug-fighting program, Shelly said.

Although hopeful that the camps will make a difference, those involved acknowledge that only time will tell. But if Monique Simmons, 7, is an indication, the impact was made.

Saying she has a cousin who belongs to a gang, the second-grader emphatically said she does not want to become one of the approximate 5,000 Long Beach gang members. Paraphrasing what she heard officers say earlier, the child explained: "It's not good for you to do what you see other people do."

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