Addressing an audience of mostly elementary school boys Thursday, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block opened his speech for Bring Your Sons to Work Day with a grandfatherly smile and a question:
The Monterey Park sheriff's station sponsors take-your-child-to-work days for both sons and daughters, he said, so why do girls get to take a day off from school for their version of the event in April?
"You've got to come on your vacation," he said. "How come we're treating the boys differently?"
"Because," personnel services head Barney Johnson answered to the giggling crowd, "the boys are tougher."
Boys want to see the department's special weapons teams, Johnson said later. They love guns and are fascinated by deputies' crime-fighting equipment.
"Girls are much easier," said Johnson, who organizes both the sons' and the daughters' days. "For the girls, we bring in a representative of our nurses and female deputies, and we have someone . . . from our data systems department."
According to the department, a few of the informational demonstrations cross gender lines: All kids love dogs and puppets. The canine squad was called out to a crime scene Thursday and missed its scheduled visit--even though the girls got to see it in April.
But the youngsters were amply entertained by Sheriff's Sgt. Aaron Williams, a ventriloquist/magician who gained fame in 1980s commercials with his dummy sidekick, Freddy, and the slogan, "Say nope to dope and ugh to drugs."
Freddy and law enforcement spokesdog Officer McGruff exchanged quips with the crowd, eliciting laughs from the boys and quite often the adults, too.
Only a group of ultra-bored teenagers remained stoic throughout the puppet show. But they said they had an affinity for computers and had come to the sons' day in hopes of meeting someone more relevant to their interests--an employee, say, from the data systems department.
Regardless, Williams kept the crowd's interest through his antics, prizes and visuals: "You guys are always interested in guns," he said, producing a bullet from his pocket and telling them to avoid violence.
Stanley Webb, 10, didn't need the reminder.
Much to Block's chagrin, Stanley told the sheriff that he wants to be a lawyer when he grows up because, as he explained later, "I'd like to put bad people in jail and not let them out until they die."
So why not be a deputy?
"Because I don't want to get shot," Stanley said. "And I want to be on TV."
Stanley and his friend, Issac Salas, 10, giggled at McGruff, but both said they were really there for the promise of prizes. "They ask questions, and you can win a basketball," Isaac said. "I want to win that basketball."
Fitting side-by-side in the same swivel office chair, Stanley and Isaac listened cautiously as Williams and Johnson asked the assembled boys sheriff-related trivia. When the only prize offered was a bag of Sheriff's Department memorabilia--horse-patrol pogs and SANE bumper stickers--the two refrained from raising their hands to answer.
But when the big prize came up, the boys were out of luck.
"What does SANE stand for?" Johnson asked.
They looked blankly at each other.
Stanley turned around to get help from Mary Morris, his aunt and the department's bilingual coordinator, Mary Morris, who had been standing behind them. But she was gone. Uh-oh.
"Substance Abuse Narcotics Education," stammered another boy, clinching the prize.
If Stanley and Isaac were disappointed, they didn't show it. Shortly after the trivia session, the two clamored around Deputy Gricel Saldana of the East Los Angeles station's bicycle unit, their eyes bright and their questions ready.
"Do you chase purse snatchers?" Isaac asked.
"We chase everything," Saldana answered.
"Everything? Even a dog?" Stanley chimed in, looking ready to give up his dream of law school.
"No, we don't chase dogs. Sometimes dogs chase us, though," the deputy said.
"Oh," the boy nodded, appearing more ready than ever to pass on a badge.