Sunday, August 26, 2001

Trip was journey to understanding


Officer helped kids see human side of job

By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It was a downriver excursion through nature, a passage toward self-reliance and maturity for a few inner-city and suburban teens.

        For Cincinnati Police Officer Eric Franz, it was also a quest for understanding.

        Officer Franz, a Mount Washington neighborhood policeman, became a river guide for the 40 or so teens in the annual RiverTrek adventure, five days and nights of camping, canoeing and rafting along the Little Miami and Ohio rivers.

        Each summer the journey mixes up to 50 city and suburban youths, ages 13-17 — rich and poor, black and white, in trouble or excelling in school. The trip aims to teach team-building and respect for nature.

        Officer Franz wanted to add another lesson, about the human side of policing.

        “I thought it was great,” he said of the trip, which ended Aug. 1. “It was physically demanding, emotionally demanding. We were challenged on all levels, kids and adults.”

        In previous years, Officer Franz had dropped in for a few hours, and found only a few teens comfortable enough to talk to him.

        Usually they weren't the ones he most needed to reach, he said; real outreach involves helping turn around troubled kids.

        “They didn't want anything to do with a police officer in uniform,” he said. “The perception is that the police are not your friends.”

        This year, he became a team leader, staying with the campers and the staff for the whole trip.

        That first day and night he and eight kids — six black and two white — shared a raft down the Little Miami. The teens viewed him as just another “white male guiding them down the river,” he said.

        “They opened up to me,” he said. “They thought I was just a recreation employee, so we were really able to break down barriers.”

        The next day, at breakfast, a few of the kids were talking about dead bodies and asked him if he'd ever seen one. When he said he did, they asked what he did for a living, and he told them.

        Some took a few minutes to believe him. One boy from Avondale stormed away in anger.

        “All the kids there were predisposed to believe that a Cincinnati cop was an SOB,” Officer Franz said. “He had built up in his mind that a police officer was the enemy.

        “But that story has a happy ending.”

        The next two days, as campers and staff paired up in two-man canoes, Officer Franz teamed up with the Avondale youth.

        Over hours of paddling and navigating the river, they developed a friendly, open relationship. The youth talked about his dreams for college and a football career; Officer Franz talked about being a police officer.

        “That was one of the neatest things,” Officer Franz said.

        “He was amazed that I knew some of the police officers who work his neighborhood. He hated them ... because he didn't know them as human beings, just as officers who sometimes busted some of his friends and neighbors.”

        Determined to change that, toward the end of the river trip Officer Franz called ahead and arranged for one of the officers most well-known in the youth's neighborhood to come meet with him. The two shook hands, talked awhile and the teen seemed surprised to discover the officer's human side, Officer Franz said.

        On the last day of the adventure, Officer Franz was back in uniform and in a police cruiser. He met about 30 campers before they boarded buses for home.

        “The last day I pulled up in uniform and all 30 kids rushed me,” he said. “I had every kid there asking me questions. We had already broken down so many barriers.”

        Officer Franz said he will encourage other officers to get involved in youth programs like RiverTrek and Camp Joy, the summer camp the police division sponsors.

        RiverTrek is free. It is sponsored by the Cincinnati Recreation Commission, Morgan's Canoe Livery and other companies and volunteers.
       

        For more information, log onto www.cincyrec.org and click on RiverTrek, or call (513) 352-4000.
       

       



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