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Off the Freeway: New Program Seeks to Connect Local Youth With Police

By Eytan Wallace

VERMONT SQUARE, Calif -- It's a community riddled with gangs, where distrust has long existed between residents and police. But now, a new program in the South LA neighborhood of Vermont Square appears to be bridging that divide.

This past February, LAPD Officers Joseph Oseguera and Chris McFeeders initiated,"A Read Along with LAPD". Just as the name implies, the program involves officers reading to children in an effort to establish from an early age relationships between law enforcement and youth who may be susceptible to gangs and crime.

With the recent barrage of news stories highlighting negative interactions and racial tensions between civilians and police, and the distrust resulting therefrom, Oseguera and McFeeders want to counter negative perceptions, beginning with the children in their own community. "We really wanted to do outreach to show children that police officers are the good guys," Oseguera said proudly of his program, adding, "[the police] are here to protect and to help them."

Every Friday afternoon at the Vermont Square Library around 2:30 p.m., Oseguera and McFeeders read books to approximately 20 children, most of whom are African American or Hispanic. The kids gather on the carpeted floor in a semicircle, some on parents' laps and some crossed-legged on their own, in the cozy children's corner of the library, while the officer reads aloud from a favorite book. The mood is friendly and happy. The kids seem captivated by the story as Oseguera holds the book high and slowly moves it from right to left. Laughter can be heard when the officer mimiks an animal or goes into character from the book.

With this simple program, the officers' hope is that the kids will open their eyes to a life of higher education and a life without gangs and drugs. "South LA has a lot of gangs," Oseguera stated. "There is a big problem with drugs. These children are targets from a very young age. The gangs start recruiting them as early as elementary school."

"It's not an 'if,' but rather a 'when' when these children will be recruited to join gangs. My hope is that on the day they are asked to join a gang, they will remember the officers they met at the library, and have the guts to say 'no' to a life of crime and to say 'yes' to a life of happiness and education."

Oseguera, 37, said he grew up in the area and was inspired when he was just a boy to join the LAPD. He recalled meeting LAPD officers at his elementary school's career day nearly 25 years ago.

But according to the seven-year veteran, "one career day is generally not enough to make a lasting impact."

"We felt that making a connection with these children would be invaluable, while at the same time promoting learning and reading," the officer said.

While it is too early to tell whether the program has been successful, as it was launched less than nine months ago, the children who attend every week seem to love it. Some said this one short hour with the officers at the library is their favorite time of the week. Others stated they are so inspired by this program that they dream of one day joining the police force.

Martin Rodriguez, whose parents are undocumented from Honduras, is one of those who aspire to become a police officer. Following the read-along, he suggested that he, too, wants to read to kids when he becomes a policeman. "I want to be a police [officer]," said the seven-year-old, "because they could go get some robbers and read to the kids."

Sisters Zanera and Ameria Gordon, both African American, did not appear to think twice about recent conflicts between the police and the black community. In fact, the sisters, who are in the third and fifth grades, respectively, at Vermont Square’s Western Ave. School, implied that without the police, the community could not function properly.

"The police are good because they will take the bad people to jail and keep them there," said older sister Zanera. Her younger sister, Ameria, called the police "amazing" and the "heroes" of our community.

The program is currently in full effect at only three libraries across the city. Oseguera's long-term goal is to see every library in the city implement this program so that "the next generation can live in happiness and with confidence in their local law enforcement."

"As police, we really have to lower our guard and let the community get close to us so they can learn to trust us. This is a partnership. We cannot keep the streets safe by ourselves. We have to build a partnership with the community in order to do that." And that is just what Oseguera, McFeeders and the "Read Along" program have begun to do.