Summer camp builds friendships, cuts crime

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A barbecue at Evergreen Park Thursday was designed to keep Wichita kids out of trouble with the law.  Police say it's working, for the 18th year in a row.

"We get to eat food.  We get to play dodge ball with the polices," said Benjamin Martinez.

He loves police.  This summer, Benjamin and his sister, Miranda, got to hang out with officers all summer long.

"I make friends and I eat here and I get to play games, make activities and get prizes," said Miranda.

The Evergreen Summer Activity Camp keeps the kids busy during the days out of school, something their mother loves.

"I love it," Elizabeth Martinez said.  "They do a lot of activities.  They have a lot of field trips, drawing, art.  They really get educated versus just staying at home, being on the tablet all day, watching TV all day. So this is way better than that."

In the process they get to know some of Wichita's finest in a whole new way.

"We cook, we serve.  This year we'll have a big dodge ball tournament after they're done eating," said Officer Steve Jerrell, Wichita Police.  "Hopefully they're really full.  It gives us a better chance!"

Miranda says she now considers the officers she's met her friends. Police say that friendship translates to lower crime rates.

"I want people to be good, but not bad.  But if they be bad then they get arrested," Miranda said.

The program started with a jump in juvenile crime in one Wichita neighborhood 18 years ago.  Police say when they started this summer camp they immediately saw a drop in that crime.  As the crime moved to other neighborhoods, so did the program.

"The main purpose of the camps, when we created them 18 years ago, was keep them busy, give them something to do, give them structured activities and we watched our juvenile crime rate go down in the neighborhoods that we had them.   But it's also to build rapport with police officers and spend time with them, let them realize that we are human beings.  That's why we're not in uniforms, we're in plain clothes, and that we are just like they are," said Jerrell.  

He says that familiarity has helped solve some major crimes over the years.

"We've had kids come to us and report crimes to us, give us information about crimes.  We've had parents come to us because of the rapport we've built with the kid.  When the kid goes home everyday and talks about the good things that the officers are doing it starts to equate in the home also," Jerrell said.

On closing day of the camp this year, the parents seem as excited as the kids and the police to be here.  After a full day of food and dodge ball, the camp closed with a prize giveaway.