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Duluth police group hosts a day to make friends with officers

Jay Koewler, 5, of Duluth, gets a thrill as he rides the hovercraft with the help of Megan Steiner, a volunteer with the Duluth Children’s Museum. The ride was part of the fun at the kids’ carnival and sporting events at the Duluth Heritage Sports Center on Saturday hosted by the Duluth Police Activities League. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
A child runs under the colorful parachute lifted and lowered by police cadet Christopher Hall (left), with the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, along with Alexander Prouse (center) and Jarrid Johnson, with the Duluth Police Explorers program Saturday at the Heritage Sports Center. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)2 / 3
Duluth police officer Nick Lepak fits Aidan Ibalio, 3, of Duluth with a new, free bike helmet during the Duluth Police Activities League event Saturday while his brother Ethan, 8, tightens up his helmet strap (left). (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

A new Duluth police group formed with the idea of letting kids know that officers are their friends.

The Schroeder kids get that.

“I think that they’re really helpful around the city,” said Xander Schroeder, 9, about police.

Agreed big sister Melissa, 12: “I think they’re good to have around in case you get in trouble.”

The siblings, from the Lincoln Park neighborhood, were among dozens of children — along with the adults in their lives — who attended the free kickoff event for the Duluth Police Activities League on Saturday afternoon at the Duluth Heritage Sports Center.

The festivities centered on the center’s Seitz Arena, covered with an artificial turf, where kids shot baskets, tried out boxing gloves and played in a brightly colored bounce house, among a variety of options.

The indoor event got a boost from the chilly, rainy conditions outside.

“Rain brings people in for sure,” said Peter Jacobsen of the Duluth Children’s Museum, one of many organizations that were helping.

The Police Activities League has been around for a long time nationally, said Officer Tom Sewell, community officer for the city’s far western neighborhoods. But until now, there have been only two in Minnesota: in St. Paul and in Moorhead.

Sewell, 30, caught the idea during a training session in St. Paul.

“I thought: How cool is that?” Sewell related. “You’re a cop and you get paid to go play with kids.”

But the underlying purpose is far deeper, he added.

“Unfortunately, a lot of children out there, the only interaction they’ve had with police is negative,” he said. “We may be arresting Mom and Dad or they’re getting in trouble or going to the shelter. And we want to show them that that’s part of our job, but we’re there for them.”

Although it’s new to Duluth, the Police Activities League in other places has proved to reduce crime, Sewell said.

The inaugural event took four months of planning, Sewell said, but it appeared to be paying off. In addition to about a dozen on-duty Duluth police officers — other, off-duty officers came with their families — some 40 other volunteers were participating in various ways.

Everything was donated, Sewell said.

In addition to the Children’s Museum, participating groups included the Arrowhead Regional Corrections, the Boys and Girls Club, the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College law enforcement program, the Duluth police Reserves and Explorers and the Valley Youth Center, among others.

The Heritage Center donated its space and Clyde Iron Works provided food. London Road Rental donated its carnival games.

“We’re completely nonprofit,” Sewell said. “We run off of donations and volunteers.”

In August, the league will work with Jungle Boy Boxing to provide a three-week, three-days-a-week fitness camp. Later, it will host the Punt, Pass and Kick competition with the National Football League and the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Everything will be free for kids, Sewell said.

It’s worth doing, said Duluth police Sgt. Chuck O’Connor, who brought a command center and parked it outside the heritage center.

“Police officers aren’t just people in uniforms, persons that drive by in squad cars with their lights and siren going,” O’Connor said. “This is a chance for kids to meet the cops up close and realize they’re just regular people.”

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