Retired Anaheim Police Department Capt. Joe Vargas is the new president of the board of directors of Cops 4 Kids. He has a long history with organization – in fact, in 1992, he founded it with Sgt. Chuck Knight.
“I was working in the Anna Drive community and got really attached to the children there,” Vargas recalls. “I wanted to do something more for the kids.”
Vargas recently discussed the thriving program, how it plays a key role in steering youth in the right direction and how it has emerged as an important tool the Anaheim Police Department uses to engage the community.
Look East, Young Man
Cops 4 Kids started with an unlikely activity: Karate.
Vargas and Knight came up with the idea of teaching karate at Sycamore Junior High, and inviting kids to spend their time punching, kicking and delivering knee and elbow strikes to their sparring partners.
To recruit kids and teens to show up at the first class, Vargas and Knight cruised down streets, using a loudspeaker on their patrol car to whip up interest.
They figured that maybe a dozen kids would show up, eager to learn such techniques as “knife hands,” “spear hands” and palm-heel strikes.
They were wrong. The head count was closer to 50.
“It was a bit overwhelming to see the number of kids that showed up,” Vargas said.
That class eventually led to the formation of the Anaheim Police Activities League, which later grew into Cops for Kids.
A targeted clientele
Lots of youth programs work with kids in Anaheim. One of the things that makes Cops 4 Kids unique is the way participants are targeted. The organization, working in a collaborative relationship with Anaheim’s school districts, strives to identify kids who can best benefit from the program.
“Specifically,” says Vargas, “we look at behavior problems, poor attendance, or just self-confidence issues.”
Vargas recalls a teacher talking about a gang member who had been convicted of a serious crime.
“I had him in the 5th grade,” the teacher told Vargas. “I could have told you he was going to be a problem.”
Stories like that, says Vargas, underscore the importance of a program like Cops 4 Kids.
“If we had listened back then, I suppose a young man would not be in state prison right now,” Vargas says.
Cops 4 Kids tries to be where the needs are most pressing, Vargas says. To that end, the organization has a mobile program that puts officers on the streets. This allows kids to have a chance to interact with cops.
A badge and a gun
Kids tend to notice when a cop enters a room.
“Officers carry a badge and a gun and represent authority, and for kids, that’s a big deal,” Vargas says.
And, he adds, it’s another reason Cops 4 Kids stands out from other youth-oriented programs.
“Kids react differently to a police officer than just about any other adult,” Vargas says. “I mean, think about it: Don’t you react differently when a patrol car pulls up behind you and follows you for a while?”
Vargas says it can be a life-changing event when a child is exposed to positive role model like a uniformed police officer.
Just drop on in
Cops 4 Kids makes it easy for the youth of Anaheim to get involved in the organization. The organization has a drop-in youth center locate next door to Lincoln Elementary.
The organization still offers karate classes at the Downtown Youth Center, and also helps sponsor the Anaheim Boxing Club. But Cops 4 Kids’ most popular program is the Anaheim Police Jr. Cadets, in which about 500 currently are being put through the program.
Kids in the Anaheim Police Jr. Cadets are referred by teachers or brought in by parents who have heard about the program.
Intervention is the key
No child wants to grow up to be a criminal, Vargas notes. Intervention is crucial, he says, to keep kids out of gangs, especially in neighborhoods where pressure to join gangs can be intense.
“If we invest our time, talent and treasure in children, gang violence, juvenile delinquency and crime in general can significantly decrease,” Vargas says. “If we intervene at the earliest stages, we can make our communities safer and better, and we all benefit from that.”
Vargas says he looks forward to continuing to make a difference at Cops 4 Kids.
“It’s now been over 20 years,” he says, “and I’m proud of what the organization continues to do for kids in Anaheim.”
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