LOS ANGELES - No matter how hard they try or how many of them there are, the police can't be everywhere. So some deputies with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are looking for new ways to keep people safe in historically dangerous neighborhoods.
At 14 years old, Bryan Fuentes has experienced first-hand what many Americans only see on TV.
“You’re exposed to drugs. You’re exposed to gang violence. You’re exposed to homicides. You’re exposed to all sorts of dangers,” said Fuentes.
Fuentes is from South Los Angeles, an area plagued by poverty and crime. But there is a safe haven here in an old police station that has been turned into an after-school youth center for students. It's called a Youth Activities League, and is the result of a partnership between law enforcement and non-profit group the Sheriff’s Youth Foundation. Whether it’s school work, a game of basketball, or advice, students can get help there from staff, volunteers and deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Seventeen-year-old Andrea Duran used to distrust law enforcement.
“I used to think they’re just the bad guys catching the bad guys,” she said.
But that negative image of law enforcement quickly changed when Duran started coming to the Youth Activities League and got to know the deputies personally.
“They can feel like family - that’s what they are to me now,” said Duran.
This type of non-traditional policing helps break down preconceived stereotypes. Among many immigrants, that means showing them police in the U.S. are different from law enforcement in their home countries, said Deputy Alma Gonzalez, whose parents are immigrants.
“In Mexico, unfortunately, you do hear a lot of corruption; there is a lot of corruption and then coming to this country, whatever contact they have to law enforcement it wasn’t very positive because of either immigration or the uniform - it’s intimating,” said Gonzalez.
Working with the youth is one way to change that perception, said Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
“Getting to a family through their children allows us to be able to have an opportunity to really take our relationships to another level,” said McDonnell.
McDonnell said community outreach is one reason why violent crimes have been decreasing countywide.
But gangs and crime still exist here, and having places like the Youth Activities League in urban neighborhoods throughout the county gives young people another option, said Deputy Bruce McCall.
“I try to do things to educate youth, to encourage youth and expose youth to new and exciting things that they don’t limit themselves to what may be going on in their community,” said McCall.
Most students who attend this after school program for at least six months have improved self-esteem and are more confident in school. Brian Fuentes said he wants to go to college and pursue a career in law enforcement, so he, too, can help those in need.