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Duluth cops chase better relations with neighborhood kids

Carrie Heffernan watched as her three rambunctious young boys climbed into the back of a Duluth police car Tuesday afternoon. Thankfully for the Duluth woman, sons Ben, Nick and Ashton weren't being hauled off to jail. They were just checking out...

Touch football
Deonta Lew, 11, carries the football as his teammates, including Duluth police officer Rob Hurst (right), charge toward the goal line in a game of touch football Tuesday afternoon at Portman Square as part of the "Cops, Kids and Cars" event. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)
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Carrie Heffernan watched as her three rambunctious young boys climbed into the back of a Duluth police car Tuesday afternoon.

Thankfully for the Duluth woman, sons Ben, Nick and Ashton weren't being hauled off to jail. They were just checking out gadgets and gear that can be found in Duluth squad cars.

"Hopefully that's the first and last time they end up in the back of a cop car," Heffernan told friend Sara Vallie, whose three children, Wyatt, Zach and Alexis, joined their friends in checking out the cruiser.

The two families were among hundreds of people who turned out to the Duluth Police Department's first annual "Cops, Kids and Cars" event Tuesday at Portland Square.

The idea is to get Duluthians, especially kids, together with police officers to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community.

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Stephan Witherspoon of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative said he and Police Chief Gordon Ramsay conceived the idea during a conversation about three weeks ago and quickly pulled it together before the end of summer.

"We wanted the community to be able to meet with the people who protect and serve and see them in a positive environment," Witherspoon said. "It really should be an annual thing."

Besides checking out the police department's fleet of squad cars and its mobile command post, the youngsters met one of the department's police dogs, played some games of touch football with officers and grilled up some hot dogs and burgers.

Christien Spanyard's two children, 7-year-old Heaven and 6-year-old Mark, found plenty of entertainment in playing with Abe, a 9-year-old German shepherd police dog.

"He's cool," Heaven said. "I want a baby German shepherd."

Spanyard said she heard about the event because she follows Ramsay on Facebook and knew the event would be good for her kids.

"They've been wanting to meet a police dog for so long," she said. "This is a great opportunity for them before they go back to school."

About 17 Duluth officers from throughout the city attended the event, with more stopping in between calls, Ramsay said. Even Mayor Don Ness stopped by for a while.

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Ramsay said it was encouraging to see officers not just talking to one another, but instead talking to the kids, playing games and taking photos.

"We all do better when we have positive interaction with the police," he said. "More interaction is good for the cops, too, because so often they're not getting that day-to-day."

The community officers said they considered the event a good outreach effort, too.

"Most of the time, when they get to see us, it's not in a very positive environment," Lincoln Park officer Mike Erickson said. "It's a nice change of pace."

Ramsay and Witherspoon said they were happy with the turnout for the hastily organized event and said they'd like to continue it, with a little better preparation, every summer.

"This is one of the spots where it's needed most," Witherspoon said of the Central Hillside location. "Let's do it every year."

Related Topics: FAMILYPOLICE
Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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