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DURHAM, N.C. -- A recently minted Durham police officer has given youngsters in a public housing community new hope for their future and cut crime, thanks to a program he created in his district.
Officer Michael Frels started a mentoring effort in the high-crime Hoover Road housing community of East Durham about two months ago to help steer students in the right direction.
Frels, who graduated from the Durham Police Academy earlier this year, saw a need to help kids who were at risk for academic failure, and decided to do something about it.
With help from the Durham Housing Authority, which oversees the Hoover Road apartments, Frels reserved the community center there from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays for about two months. During those times, he and other officers from District 1, as well as volunteers from public housing and N.C. Central University, served as tutors for youth who wanted extra help with their homework and a quiet place to study.
"We tried to provide them positive role models, and help them scholastically," Frels said.
On a typical day, he said, 15 to 20 youngsters showed up at the center.
Frels said one 7-year-old boy in particular appeared to benefit from the program, especially with his reading skills.
"He was really motivated," Frels said. "He really worked hard on his reading, and as the weeks went by, I noticed that he was not needing as much help."
Frels said it was gratifying to see how modest effort from volunteers made a profound difference in one person's life.
"It was really encouraging to see a child that young with so much determination," Frels said. "It made me feel that what we were doing definitely was going to benefit him, because we were feeding that determination."
Most participants were between 6 and 14, and seemed to appreciate the special attention, he said.
But Frels said the kids weren't the only ones who were helped.
"It benefitted us, too, because putting an officer up there three days a week for two hours at a time allowed us to have a good presence there, and deterred a lot of crime," Frels said.
He said public housing officials reported that while the program was operating, they had fewer reports of crime and related complaints at Hoover Road.
Frels, 32, said the program was a group effort, and he doesn't want all the credit. But it was his idea, which he developed after seeing what a difference police involvement in the community could make when he was a police officer for seven years with the Moline Police Department in Moline, Ill.
When his wife got a job in the Triangle and they moved to Durham, he joined the Durham Police Department. Recruits do what's called a "neighborhood portfolio exercise" as part of their training, which involves finding a way to improve conditions in the district they patrol.
For Frels, the mentoring program was a natural choice.
Frels also wanted to dispel the feeling among many in public housing that police are the enemy.
"After a few years of being a police officer, you can become very cynical and have negative views, because of some of the stuff you're involved in," he said. "I think the best part of this program has been seeing these kids, their enthusiasm, excitement and energy, and being a positive influence on them instead of an enforcer."
Frels said arresting people is part of an officer's job, but not the only part.
"These kids often see you as the bad guy," he said. "They see you as the person who's taking away their father or brother or somebody in their family who has done something wrong. They don't understand that. So they grow up not liking the police."
But a tutoring program can have the opposite effect, he said.
"When we can be encouraging them and reinforcing good behavior, and talk with them more as a mentor, that's a different aspect of police work."
Frels said the experience changed his perspective.
"It's given me a brighter outlook in my actions and attitude," he said. "Not that I had a bad attitude - but the experience was just humbling. Everyone has a story, and there's more to police work than arresting people."
The program ended last week, but Frels said police are trying to find a way to restart it.
"So many of these kids have a bright future ahead of them if we can steer them on the right track," he said. "If just one of the 15 or 20 kids in the program ends up going to college, getting a job and becoming a productive member of society, I would see that as a blessing, and a huge win for the Durham Police Department."