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'We are trying to change the demand for drugs . . . . the earlier we start the better chance we have to be effective.'

May 28, 1987|LEE HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

PC is a 3-foot, 80-pound moving caricature of a Compton police car that talks to children. But the miniature police car is more than a toy.

The fiberglass robot has been recruited to educate grade school students about the dangers of narcotics.

With its squeaky siren, tiny red and blue flashing lights and bobbing eyes, PC makes twice-weekly visits to elementary campuses in the Compton Unified School District.

By the end of the school year next month, the remote-controlled, talking police car will have spoken to more than 15,000 students in the first through sixth grades.

"We are trying to change the demand for drugs. We are starting with the young generation because the earlier we start the better chance we have to be effective," said Compton Police Sgt. Danny Sneed, who heads the community affairs section of the 120-officer force.

Police estimate that more than half of the crimes in the Compton area are drug related--people committing crimes like burglary and robbery to pay for drugs.

"The problem is enormous. Beneath these well-scrubbed kids is an epidemic," said Joycelyn Whiten, director of the Addiction Research Center at Martin Luther King Jr.-Drew Medical Center in South Los Angeles.

Whiten, who has a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA, has been enlisted by Compton police to accompany PC on its visits. She volunteers her time. Using skits and plastic organs, including the brain, heart, liver and lungs, she illustrates to the students how drugs can affect them.

On a recent drug-fighting mission to Emerson Elementary School, Whiten had several students perform a skit for about 200 fellow students in the school auditorium.

The children in the skit held placards that designated them as various illegal drugs, while another child played the part of the brain.

"When you eat candy, the sugar will get through to the brain. Drugs will also get through the brain blood barrier," Whiten said.

"The brain is under attack by drugs," Whiten told the students as the brain was surrounded by classmates and collapsed beneath the weight of their drugs.

"Just don't say no to drugs, say yes to life," Whiten said before turning the program over to PC.

Police officer Al Skiles used PC to keep their attention, then quizzed the students about drugs. He used an astounding story. And even more amazingly, some of the grade school students demonstrated their intimate familiarity with the street sale of drugs.

Police "stopped some men recently on the streets. They were carrying flashlights. One had a lantern and was carrying a baby in his arms," Skiles said. Then he asked the students to give the significance of the flashlights, the lantern and the baby.

The men were dope dealers, the flashlights and lantern were used as a signal to potential buyers, and the dealers would use the baby's diaper to hide drugs from the police, some of the students in the audience correctly answered.

The students' knowledge about drugs comes from living around a drug culture, said Whiten. The program is aimed at trying to prevent them from becoming users.

PC cost about $4,000. A portion of the money came from the Southern California Chevrolet Dealers Assn.'s Cops for Kids public service program designed to help reduce juvenile crime.

While PC was the first to be introduced in the Southeast area, the City of Whittier also has a robot that is used to warn elementary students about drugs. That program will be in operation early next year, said Cpl. Ed Childs of the Whittier police.

"PC is an attention getter. We can talk all we want but the kids remember PC. We have heard them saying after assemblies, 'PC told us not to use drugs,' " said Roger Haley, a Compton administrative assistant and the voice behind PC.

Haley stood behind a curtain at Emerson and operated the car by remote control.

After each anti-drug program, Haley sends PC into the audience to talk to the children. They love it and are curious about how the car works.

As the students filed out of the Emerson auditorium, one wanted to know, "Is there a midget inside PC?"

PC was not talking. He just bobbed his eyes.

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