Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Fighting Crime, One Kid at a Time

Detective Calvin Hart's unmarked black Chevy screeches to a halt near a bleak 13-story building. The high-rise is one of six in Curries Woods, a massive public housing complex infested with crime and drugs.

It's stop No. 1 on the detective's night-long patrol in Jersey City, N.J., a multiethnic city of 230,000. Detective Hart is a full-time juvenile cop, and his job tonight - and every night - is to keep an eye on troubled youths.

About these ads

"Get your behind home," Hart warns a teenager on the roam. There's a tinge of affection in his voice. Malik, the teenager, retorts with a cunning smile. He's no stranger to Hart. The boy's uncle was a childhood friend of the detective's who was killed in a drug-related dispute not long ago.

Hart represents an emerging breed of cop dedicated solely to what has long been considered the nation's most intractable urban crime problem: juvenile delinquency.

While the overall crime rate is falling across most of the United States, crimes committed by youths continue unabated. Now, in growing numbers, cities like Reno, Nev., Memphis, and New York are recognizing the important role youth-focused community cops can play in helping kids stay on the right track.

"There's an outreach effort by police departments to have police officers not just show up when there's a problem, but be an intricate part of the fabric of the community and be there at all times to participate," says Steve Riddell of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, at the University of Nevada in Reno.

For Hart, this new role means serving as the first-ever juvenile-intervention officer for Jersey City's 10 public housing projects, coordinating the city's new curfew law, and, perhaps most significant, being a near-father figure to hundreds of streetwise youths.

'He's in the real world'

As Hart unlocks the door of Curries Woods' Building 3, he points to the peep holes in the plywood front - the glass was shattered long ago. Children drilled the holes, he says, so they could keep a lookout for the police.

About these ads

The lobby is a world of decay. The floor is strewn with cigarette butts and half-eaten fried chicken legs. The air smells of urine. And every inch of the walls is covered with graffiti. But Hart's presence immediately warms this sordid setting.

"Uncle Calvin!" exclaims a young girl bundled head to toe in a yellow coat. Lacovia Huggins breaks away from a cluster of friends to hug the detective.

"Hey darlin', how are you doing?" asks Hart. The police officer knows the stories of the girls on his beat. Too often those stories include early pregnancy, absent fathers, domestic abuse, and drugs.

If Hart's mission seems personal, that's because in many ways it is. For him, Jersey City is more than a police beat, it's home.

Born and raised here, he grew up with the parents and grandparents of the young people he now supervises.

"He's not an outsider even though he's on the police force. He's in the real world," says Jeanette Drayton, guidance counselor at a Jersey City elementary school where Hart often lectures on drug prevention. "He was brought up here. He sees the problems kids face everyday - he has empathy."

His style is distinctive: He is a follow-through cop. He arrests drug users but gets them into drug treatment. He puts convicted youths in jail but visits them in their cells and helps find them jobs when they're released. He plays basketball with the older kids, picks up the smaller children at school, and calls their mothers and school principals if trouble looms.

Still, Hart says he has sent many to jail, and he's seen a few die violently.

A veteran narcotics and homicide detective, Hart has the skills experts say are crucial for fighting juvenile crime. These include knowing when and how to use force and, more important, knowing how to connect with the kids on his beat.

The teens here have dubbed him The Creeper, a term of grudging respect for his ability to be "everywhere at once."

"He's about the only cop that gets respect out here," says Carmen Strickland, a teenage resident of Curries Woods.

Changing role of youth officers

A consensus is emerging among police departments and law-enforcement experts that officers like Hart have a central role to play in interrupting young criminal careers, if they can successfully form partnerships not only with teens but also with the community's schools, churches, and parents.

The concept of youth-focused policing has become popular in the past few years, and versions of it are being attempted in cities and towns around the country.

In Reno, Deputy Police Chief Ondra Berry says his first priority is for officers to connect with young people. In the Bronx, Sgt. Ricardo Aguirre is enlisting the help of his fellow officers to work with troubled youths through a counseling program he created called "Keep Our Kids Alive."

At a conference in Reno this week, more than 1,300 judges, law-enforcement officials, and other juvenile-crime experts are meeting to discuss the importance of youth-beat officers and the changing face of juvenile justice.

While many experts say they are encouraged by the successes they've observed, they also believe that police departments must learn better ways to recruit and train juvenile cops.

"We have turned the philosophy [of juvenile policing] around, but what we haven't turned around is who we bring to be police officers and how we train them," says John Firman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Alexandria, Va.

"We're still looking for guys who're driving cars and firing guns," Mr. Firman says. "But the involvement of the officer has to be a personal one, a commitment to understanding the kids' lives."

From alcoholic to role model

In Jersey City, Detective Hart doesn't just try to understand kids' lives, he's "here to save lives," he says. And he knows what saving lives means, because he saved his own. For years, he was an alcoholic, and the addiction cost him his home, jobs, and family.

"I went through it all - sleeping in abandoned buildings, standing in the soup lines, and I wouldn't wish it to my worst enemy," Hart remembers. As a result, his wife, Linda, divorced him and took their baby daughter with her when she left.

Several years after Linda left, Hart says he finally got tired of leading a self-destructive life. With the encouragement and support of a close friend who was a Jersey City police officer, Hart conquered his alcoholism. The friend also inspired him to become a cop.

"That's why I do what I do," Hart says. "It's kind of my way of giving back and making sure that the kids don't do the same [things I did]."

"I became the oldest rookie in the Jersey City Police Department I know," he jokes.

To make things complete, Linda came back and they remarried. They have another daughter and are also raising his niece.

In the Jersey City Police Department, Hart rose fast. Within a year, he was promoted to narcotics detective, then to homicide detective. The housing authority recruited him to help rid the Curries Woods complex of its drug scourge. Major drug busts helped improve life for the 712 families living there, he says.

But Hart also achieved something deeper - he got residents to trust the police, at a time when distrust was running high. Last year, he became the housing authority's first juvenile-intervention officer.

"He's like a father to the projects," says Ms. Strickland.

Make no mistake about it, however. Calvin Hart can be just as tough as he is friendly, and the kids know it.

"If you do something wrong, [Uncle Calvin] takes you where you're supposed to go," says Monique Richburg.

She learned that firsthand when she was arrested for delivering drugs. "He'll come get you, knock at your door. [But] he won't be nasty [or] forceful - others will probably beat you up."

A friend for struggling parents

Stop No. 2 tonight is the Curries Woods weekly parenting session at 7:30 p.m. It's a haven of warmth and cleanliness in Building 6, which was renovated recently as part of a multimillion-dollar effort to make 40-year-old Curries Woods more hospitable.

When Hart arrives, he's greeted with laughter and hugs. Many of the mothers here know the detective both as their friend and as the only positive male role model their children have ever had.

"When it comes to him talking to the little ones, he can do it," says Maxine Warner, who went to school with Hart and now relies on him as a friend to her grandchildren, whose father isn't around.

Many parents and guardians here know that their children will listen to Hart, if to nobody else. Claretha Roach, for example, brings her young son, Jamal - who has been cursing at his mother - to the meeting so Hart can talk to him.

"I know how to whip him," Hart says grinning.

But Hart needs only words and his broad shoulders to impress Jamal. He invites the boy to sit near him on a big couch, and then begins firing questions at him: What does Jamal want to do when he grows up?

Be a basketball star, responds the boy.

How many points does he score? Hart asks. Does he know that out of 100,000 high school basketball players, only about 600 make it to the top? And what will happen if Jamal isn't one of them?

Jamal looks at the officer intently. Hart tells Jamal he'd better stick with school; in fact, he'll pick him up at school tomorrow. A smile creeps across Jamal's face.

Tough when he has to be

It's about 10:30 p.m. now, and stop No. 3 is Curries Woods' Building 4, a grim high-rise soon to be demolished. As Hart makes his way toward the door, the teenagers outside spot him coming. But rather than scatter at his approach, the kids flock to him.

"Colleer," Hart yells to a boy with a baby face and braided hair. "You back in school?"


"If you don't know, who does know?"

Silence still.

In a voice filled with exasperation, Hart warns the teen that he'll have a word with him tomorrow. It was, after all, the detective who locked up Colleer's two older brothers, who were major drug pins. And now, Hart worries that Colleer is selling "wet" - a mixture of marijuana and PCP - to younger kids.

But Hart's cheerfulness quickly comes back when Elliott Smith shows up. Hart and Mr. Smith enjoy each other's company.

"He used to be slinging [selling drugs] out here," Hart says. Smith explains that, after he did jail time, it was the detective who recommended him for a temporary job as a warehouse worker. Now, Hart hopes to get Smith a permanent job at the city recycling plant. "It's minimum wage, but it's work history," says Hart.

At home on the streets

As midnight approaches, Hart is back in his Chevy and heading toward Martin Luther King Drive. Once bustling with shoppers, the street now teems with drug activity day and night. It went downhill when its middle class fled, along with its banks and stores.

Hart recognizes many of the young people clustered on the corners, some brazenly offering drugs. He knows who controls what.

One corner is powered by the brothers of a girl who was caught carrying drugs.

"She did a favor, and she got caught," Hart says. He ponders aloud: "How can you let your sister get trapped like this?"

As the car moves along, he points to another corner where a young girl is standing alone. "This girl is a hooker," Hart says. "I put her in drug rehab, but she came right back [to drugs and prostitution.]"

Cruising along this grim street, the detective reveals his dreams of restoring the neighborhood to the bustling center it was when he was a boy.

He points to where his grandfather's restaurant used to be; now it's part of a public-housing complex. On another corner stands a dilapidated building that used to be the Rainbow Shop, where Hart would buy stockings for his mother.

"This was the showplace at one time," he says with some excitement.

When Hart reaches a ramshackle building next to the St. Stephen Holiness Church, he stops the car.

The boarded-up house used to be his aunt's. Now, Hart owns it, and he plans to turn it into a computer learning center for kids and cops.

"We talk a lot about space for kids, things for them to do," Hart muses, "and we don't live up to our bargain."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.