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Long Arm of Law : Oxnard Chief Gives Botswana Tips on Fighting Crime

January 26, 1989|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

Under a U.S. Information Agency program, Oxnard police are sharing crime-fighting tips with their brethren in--you guessed it--Gabarone, the capital of Botswana.

At first glance, Oxnard and Gabarone (pronounced Ha-bar-ON-ne) would seem to have little in common. In Botswana, theft is still punished with public floggings, tribal chieftains often enforce their own laws, and many men believe that they have the right to, in the words of one anthropologist who was a consultant for the program, "gently stroke their wives with a whip."

However, the city does have a problem all too familiar to Oxnard Police Chief Robert Owens: tough kids who abuse alcohol and drugs, and commit petty crimes. Officials with the U.S. Embassy there were looking for advice from a specialist in the field.

Although the anthropologist, Robert Hitchcock of the University of Nebraska, decribed the seriousness of the problem as "nothing like you'd have in Los Angeles or Oxnard," Owens was tapped for the exchange, which took the form of a 55-minute telephone conversation with a Gabarone police sergeant Tuesday.

The 19-year Oxnard police veteran has been no closer to Africa than Germany, but he does have a reputation for innovation in law enforcement.

Six years ago, Owens started Oxnard's Serious Habitual Offenders-Drug Involved program, a stern approach that joins schools, judges, police and prosecutors in dealing with youths who have had repeated brushes with the law. Since then, the program has become a model for dealing with the most troublesome of juvenile offenders.

The 57-year-old police chief rose to the occasion. In addition to Hitchcock, he contacted five anthropologists and other social scientists at universities across the United States, accumulating reams of notes and the realization that perhaps Gabarone was not so foreign after all.

The experts he contacted described the city of 110,000 in terms that any Southern Californian could understand: a sprawling mass of modern, low-slung homes built in one spurt--when the country declared its independence from Britain in 1966.

"It's not a dusty set of mud huts," Hitchcock said.

Indeed, thanks to two prolific diamond mines, the country enjoys one of the highest standards of living in Africa, although poverty afflicts thousands of rural people who have migrated to the city, such as the bobashshe , as homeless boys are called in Botswana. The name, the anthropologists said, translates to "car-wash kids" and refers to their occupation--washing cars for pennies.

Owens' proposal: to have the Gabarone police win the hearts and minds of the bobashshe by heading Boy Scout troops and inviting them to join.

"It's an opportunity to work positively with the kids," Owens explained.

The country already boasts 5,000 Scouts, he pointed out, and police around the world sponsor boys' clubs.

When it came to dealing with the drug problem, Owens cited the latest trend in substance abuse.

"It all started with President Reagan's wife Nancy saying, 'Just Say No,' " Owens told Gabarone Police Sgt. Solomon Sedumedi.

How valuable the exchange proved for Sedumedi will be known only to Gabarone street kids, because reporters were not allowed to listen in on the Botswana end of Owens' conversation.

"They're concerned about their image in" the United States, USIA official John Vince said of the Botswana government.

But anthropologists familiar with the plight of bobashshe had doubts. John Holm, a Cleveland State University anthropologist who has lived off and on in Botswana since 1970, characterized the Boy Scout idea as "naive."

"I just can't imagine these kids doing that," he said. "They're sniffing glue and everything. They're the very definition of the word urchin ."

But the USIA, whose satellite speakers bureau each year brings about 175 American experts as diverse as former State Department official Elliott Abrams and jazzman Miles Davis in touch with residents of 120 foreign countries, was expecting only the best from the handcuffs-across-the-globe project.

"Crime is crime and people are people," the program's coordinator, Taffy Schwelb, said in Washington. "If you have a technique that works in one place, it will work in Stockholm, Montevideo or Gabarone."

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