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Riverdale police reaching out to community

By Laura McMillan

The Riverdale Police Department is not waiting for someone to break the law before they reach out to the community. The Cops With Kids program is a new effort spearheaded by Sgt. Terry Harget that provides an opportunity for Riverdale's finest to serve the kids of one different apartment complex every weekend of this summer.

The goal of Cops With Kids is to deter the gang activity that is on the rise in Riverdale. "We're encouraging them to join a good gang," said Harget, who hopes that the kids he reaches will want to participate in quality activities this summer. According to Harget, this positive action taken by the Riverdale Police Department will occur nine times this summer, with one Saturday for each of the apartment complexes in the city.

The first of the city's summer festivities was held Friday at the Harmony Pines Apartments where community members, many from inside the complex and a few invited from nearby homes, bustled around the basketball goal, the pool, and the snack table.

Harmony Pines was the first of the many anxious apartment complexes in Riverdale to host the Cops With Kids event on the same Friday it was holding a pool party to give back to the residents of its community.

The manager of the apartment complex, Pat Sanders, said, "Anytime you find the police doing something positive, you can't harbor the information. Treat it like a hot potato." "The reception's been fantastic," said Harget, who was pleased with Sander's reaction to his efforts; he indicated that her feelings were shared by others in the community.

The police and the apartment management are not going into the Cops With Kids program alone.

Hearts to Nourish Hope, a not-for-profit organization providing the youth of Clayton County with positive options, was present at Friday's event drumming up interest for summer activities that will continue even after the Cops With Kids program leaves the Riverdale apartments.

Auriel Searcie, 17, of Harmony Pines Apartments enjoyed Friday's festivities, but worried, "People are probably going to act the same way after this is over." Falling back into the rut of negative activity is not what organizations like Hearts to Nourish Hope want for Riverdale.

Hearts to Nourish Hope Executive Director Deborah Swank said, "We could come and help this community have something for the kids to do." Swank knows that people are asking whether Cops for Kids will be the first and only summer activity. "It doesn't need to be," Swank said in response to that concern, "This should be a kick-off."

Swank knows that nothing can be done with out the support and assistance of the communities she is trying to help. Swank commented on how important initiatives like the Cops With Kids programs by saying, "If the community doesn't take it back, the gangs will."

The Riverdale Police Department held apartment complex initiative meetings hoping communities would involve themselves as a means of achieving Police Chief Thetus Knox's goal of community outreach. The Center of Hope Ministries, in addition to the apartment complexes and several local businesses, volunteered its services to the Riverdale P.D. early on.

At Friday's pool party, Senior Pastor Dallas Wilson assured the children of Harmony Pines Apartments, "We are having a free basketball league. We are also taking our young people on trips this summer. We want to be a help agent to you."

Some of the partiers were less aware of the serious issues facing the youth of Clayton County. Six-year old Kameron Wilkins summed up the afternoon's events, "I like the pool part. It's fun, and everybody's here."

"I'm about to go swimming - you know, talk to a few girls," said Keith Trammel, 14, whose mind was on things other than gang activity. Trammel believes that activities like that of Friday afternoon will help the community, but the rising Riverdale High School freshmen added that it will not help his image of the police who he thinks are "two faced."

While the police department wants to be more approachable for skeptics like Trammel, it may have already achieved one goal it set for people like him. Commenting on one major benefit of the Cops With Kids afternoon event, Harget said, "We're not worrying about gangs. They're not worrying about fights, drugs."

Luckily for the Riverdale Police Department, not everyone shares Trammel's pessimistic attitude toward the police, especially after the introduction of Cops With Kids. "When I saw them playing basketball it was just like they were one of us," said 16-year old Jasmine Hamrick speaking about the police officers who were as involved in the fun activities as many of the children.

Harget was glad to see that people noticed his involvement, but he was not there just to make an impression. "I will play basketball with the kids. I will go swimming with the kids. I will do it all," said Harget with a slightly giddy gleam in his eye.

This jovial side of the Riverdale police was a welcome change from the negativity of officers responsible for cleaning up gang activity in Valencia Bridges's neighborhood. After a good swim Bridges, 15, said of the police, "It doesn't seem like they're going to lock everybody up when you see them."

Although gang activity may be on the rise in Riverdale, this particular apartment complex was already running a tight ship. Pamela Wilkins, resident and mother of two, said, "I think the best part is the community. We're a family." Wilkins says that parents deal with issues in the Harmony Pines complex and aside from that the management is excellent.

Manager Pat Sanders emphasizes communication and caring in her managerial process. "Harmony Properties Inc. gives me the ammunition that I need as far as finances," added Sanders.

In addition to the company owning the apartment complex, Sanders ventured into the community for financial help. "We asked and they cam with smiling faces, glad to do it," said Sanders of the local businesses involved.

The total cost of the event was around $1,000 according to Sanders, who released a list of donations and also thanked the donors profusely. The release said, "We here at Harmony Pines felt that it was necessary to do something positive for the community since it has been experiencing a rise in crime and gang activity. We would like to that our vendors and local business for caring about our community."

On the list of generous donations the Riverdale Police Department was near the top, credited with the Cops With Kids program. Also on the list were several local business who took part in preparing a fun afternoon for children in Riverdale.

Residents of Harmony Pines Apartments are grateful to the police and businesses. Carolyn Britton, who has lived in the complex five years, said, "It's going to help these kids a lot because they don't have anything, like places to play and people to play with."

If nothing else, the Riverdale P.D. may have helped themselves and the community by giving those kids a cop to play with for one afternoon. "We're human beings," said Harget of his fellow officers and him, "and we want to interact."