SANTA FE SPRINGS — 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."