Sumter County Sheriff’s Deputy Friendly settles into a tiny chair once a week, opens a picture book and begins to read. When Deputy Friendly leaves, the book stays behind. Deputy Friendly is an outreach program of the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office to preschool students at Bushnell, Wildwood, Lake Panasoffkee and Webster elementary schools. It’s one of several outreach programs that seeks to build bridges between law enforcement and tri-county youth, from preschool to high school graduation. Regardless of the approach or the age group, engaging with children and young adults can have several benefits, according to a 2018 study conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The study found that police-youth engagement programs help reduce delinquency, prevent crime and even have educational benefits.
Sumter County has Deputy Friendly.
“I’ve had students come up to me and say, ‘The deputy came in and we were reading about getting along with our neighbors,’” said John Temple, principal of Wildwood Elementary School. Then they ask to take the book home and read it with their parents.
In Fruitland Park, the police department is preparing to restart a mentorship program going into its third year. Lake and Marion county sheriffs’ offices engage with students from middle school to graduation with their Explorers programs.
Once a week a volunteer from the SCSO takes a break from patrolling and assumes the mantle of Deputy Friendly. If the deputy who volunteered is tied up, Beth Hunt, community outreach coordinator, will call in another patrol deputy.
The deputy goes to a participating elementary school and reads a children’s book to the preschool classes. The deputy then leaves the book behind to become part of the class’s library.
The schools rotate so Deputy Friendly visits a different school each week.
The program was started by retired SCSO Undersheriff Gary Brannen three years ago as a way to help young children learn to trust law enforcement and see them as someone there to help them.
“So many times when we first go in there, I ask if they’re afraid of deputies or officers,” Hunt said. “You wouldn’t believe how many raise their hands.”
They aren’t the only ones scared sometimes.
“Some of these deputies are scared to death to go and read to the kids, but by the end, they just love it,” Hunt said.
Once the kids have the chance to talk to the deputy, Hunt said their attitudes also begin to change.
“By the end of the year, they run up and hug you,” she said. “When they see us in public, they remember us and they remember what books we’ve read.”
Temple also has seen the effectiveness of the program.
“These kids are like sponges,” he said. “They absorb everything. Our students are looking for behaviors to model themselves after. They see it in their teachers and upper-class students, and they see it in the deputies.”
With the school year now in its second month, the Fruitland Park Police Department is preparing for its own outreach program, said Lt. Henry Rains, uniformed patrol supervisor.
Fruitland Park Elementary has a focused mentoring program that pairs students with mentors from different walks of life. Members of the community, such as police, veterans and pastors, take turns mentoring students.
The program currently is in its third year, and the staff at Fruitland Park Elementary are identifying students they think could benefit from some mentorship. Once possible students who can be mentored have been identified, volunteers from the FPPD will take a few hours twice a week to work with those students.
The number of volunteers needed depends on the number of students the school selects for the program. The FPPD tries to have one volunteer for every three to five students.
“We just talk to the kids,” Rains said. “We find out what’s going on in their lives. We’ll ask them about things like their favorite basketball team.”
Between playing checkers with the kids or tossing around a baseball or football, the officers will focus on specific topics, like how to be responsible.
“For example, if Little Johnny wasn’t doing his homework we’d say, ‘Hey, Little Johnny, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you doing your homework?’” Rains said.
For older kids, the Lake and Marion county sheriffs’ offices offer Explorer Programs, an ROTC-like program that prepares young adults for future careers in law enforcement.
Explorers can serve as a pipeline for incoming talent, said Sgt. Juan Ocasio, who mentors the MCSO Explorers Program. His agency often offers jobs to their Explorers.
Deputy Kip Peterson is one deputy who came through the MCSO Explorers Program. Now he’s come full circle and is a mentor to the current generation of Explorers.
“I definitely felt a responsibility to go back and pass on the good experience I had,” he said. “Fortunately I was asked to do it. I was already there helping out and just never left.”
One of the Explorers he’s mentoring now may be the next to follow in his footsteps: Cadet Lt. Zack Boggs, a recent graduate from Marion Military Academy.
“It’s a very supportive environment,” Boggs said. “They push you to go as hard as you can and as far as you can. They’re taking young adults and asking them to think like trained law enforcement officers.”
Some explorers choose other careers. Trinity Mercer, a 10th-grader at South Lake High School and a member of the LCSO Explorers, is considering law enforcement. Or the Marine Corps. Or maybe medicine. No matter what she chooses, her time in Explorers has been valuable, she said.
“It’s been one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “They’re like a family, very supportive. My ability to communicate with other people has really improved.”
Mercer has a family history of law enforcement, but one of her fellow Explorers, acting Post President Darries Newbold, an 11th-grader at Tavares High School, had a different experience. His father was arrested multiple times while he was growing up.
“He wasn’t so fond of law enforcement,” Newbold said.
He kept things in perspective.
“I always knew it wasn’t their fault,” he said.
He was able to see the positive side of what law enforcement does, and because of that, his involvement in the Explorers Program has set him up to follow a different path than his father, he said.
Staff writer Phill Stuart can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5332, or email@example.com.