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West Springfield Greets 'Road Dawgs'

Police station hosts county's first summer camp designed to help keep youths away from gangs.

Johnny Espinoza and Christian Arteaga got out of their police cruiser and walked over to the car with all the swagger and self-confidence that they could muster at ages 12 and 13, respectively. The car shook with deep bass beats, and its heavily tinted windows gave no indication of what was inside.

Johnny tapped on the glass.

"Turn the music down," he said, trying to keep a hint of sheepishness out of his voice as he saw that the occupants of the car were at least four or five years older than he was. "Put the windows down," he added, indicating that he wanted all of the car's windows lowered.

"For my safety, can I see your hands?" he said to a woman in the bucket seat next to the driver.

If Johnny, an affable middle-schooler, seemed well-trained, it's because he, Christian and about 33 other youths mostly from Annandale were taking part in a weeklong camp, which ended Friday, run by the Fairfax County Police and other agencies to introduce young people to the work of police officers and to teach them ways of staying out of gangs.

Before walking up to the car that Johnny and Christian had theoretically pulled over, they sat in their cruiser (which they never actually drove) and received last-minute tips from Pfc. Chris Edmunds, a real police officer, who was taking part in the program at the West Springfield Police Station.

"You guys are in charge," he told them. "You guys are the cops. What do you want to tell them?"

Under Edmunds' tutelage, Johnny and Christian wrote the driver a ticket.

"You have to go to court. Please drive safely," said Christian, as he and his partner walked away.

Johnny later described the experience saying, "That was tight."

THE "ROAD DAWGS" summer camp, a nod to police vernacular that refers to beat officers as "road dogs," is the first of its kind in Fairfax County. Its aim is to spend time with young people who are at risk of getting involved in gangs and to show them how police work is done and how police officers and agencies such as the Department of Recreation and Community Services and the Community Services Board can help them turn down the temptation to join a gang.

During the week, the campers met with a SWAT team officer and a canine officer and saw a police helicopter up close. They also rode carts around a course while wearing goggles that simulated impairments brought on by drunkenness, toured the Police Academy, toured a courtroom and met with a juvenile probation officer. Friday's events included role-playing games, in which the campers acted the part of officers responding to a noise violation; a call from a mother who had just found gang paraphernalia in her son's room; a call from a resident upset about graffiti; and a traffic stop.

"We're kind of educating them about gangs, but not having it being focused on gangs the whole week," said Capt. Jack Hurlock of the West Springfield station. The 35 campers, all wearing "Road Dawg" T-shirts, also spent time at the swimming pool and enjoyed several cookouts, courtesy of the Fairfax County Police Department.

"Police officers have taken a really active role because they're counselors at the camp," said Evan Braff, who runs the teen centers for the Department of Community and Recreation Services. "They're developing a different type of relationship with kids in that community," one that relies heavily on the "comfort factor," he added.

The camp is the brainchild of Hurlock and Braff. The two were taking part in a community dialogue series on gangs hosted by Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock), when they decided to put some of the ideas into practice. Hurlock said he had originally thought of hosting a camp to introduce youths to careers in law enforcement but changed his focus somewhat after attending Bulova's forum.

"If one or two kids go that route [and become police officers], that's fine. If not, then hopefully we've positively impacted their lives," he said.

The two are considering expanding the camp next summer.

MOST OF the campers said they knew a few gang members in their neighborhoods but that they had never felt threatened by them.

"If we don't do anything to them, they don't do anything to us," said Luis Velasco, a 14-year-old getting ready to start his first year at Annandale High School. "You have to say hi and stuff like that — but I don't hang out with them."

Sergio Medina, a 14-year-old who likes science in school, said he knows a gang member in his neighborhood, a 15-year-old.

"He's not really my friend. I just say hi to him," he said. "I was with him. We went to 7-Eleven. He saw his friends, and they started talking about gangs and everything. I was quiet. I waited for him, then I got bored and I left. I said, 'See you.'"

To Sergio, as to a lot of other campers, the camp was an opportunity to learn new things and to meet new people.

"I liked to learn about the SWAT team. That was cool," he said. "I'll come again."