Zach Hatch doesn’t look much like a cop dressed in a plain gray sweatshirt and black pants, but that’s kind of the point.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department deputy spends a few afternoons a week coaching the Rancho Cordova Police Department’s Police Activities League rugby team, which is made up of middle schoolers from Rosemont, Rancho Cordova and elsewhere.
“If we don't invest in our kids, somebody else [like gang members or other negative influences] will,” Hatch said last week during the team’s after-school practice at Cordova High School. He also looks to mentor the group of boys, who have found success as a team and went undefeated this weekend during a massive rugby tournament in Rancho Cordova.
Now the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is looking to bring similar youth activities to schools around the county, including in Elk Grove, in an effort to keep at-risk kids away from gangs or other criminal activity.
The program is part of an $11.3 million federal grant last year that created a new division dedicated to decreasing gang activity throughout the area. The division will focus on enforcement, analysis and prevention of gangs.
Its prevention arm, the Youth Services Unit, is currently planning activities at about 10 pilot schools to keep middle school-aged kids out of trouble.
“Middle school–that’s the most impressionable age,” said Sgt. Mark Scott, who heads the month-old Youth Services Unit. He said it’s important to keep kids busy between 3 and 6 p.m. so they don’t get pulled in with the wrong crowds.
Dalvin Jamal-Milton, an student, is in his third year playing rugby with the group and said it keeps him busy and in shape for football. Without the program, “I'd probably be in the street playing football or something," he said.
Scott said the department is looking for a sustainable model at the pilot schools, which include and Middle Schools.
Students at the pilot schools are taking surveys to tell the sheriff’s department and school officials what kind of after-school programs they would like. Once officials find a program that works at those schools, it’ll be expanded throughout the county.
“We're pretty open right now,” as to what the activities will look like, Scott said.
One planned program is a mentoring group for female students called Girls’ Circle, led by a female deputy.
A ‘friendly face’ to gang prevention
Scott said the Youth Services Unit’s seven officers will drive flashier cars like those displayed at car shows, and will try to be role models and mentors to students who have been habitual truants or gotten into problems with suspensions.
He said when the officers drive through neighborhoods, he wants kids to run toward them instead of away from them.
“A lot of it is being accessible to kids and talking to them on their level,” he said. “A lot of what we do is listening."
Scott said involvement from the community and faith-based organizations will also be vital to the department’s success.
"It's not a law enforcement intervention,” he said. “It's a community intervention."
He said he’s hopeful once the program becomes established, it’ll become a model for other law enforcement agencies around the nation.
For now, the Rancho Cordova rugby team may be a model for the department's future activities. Some of its members have been in trouble and some haven't, but if they don't keep their grades up and behave in school, they don't play. Coach Matt Foster said many can't afford to buy cleats, but the team, nicknamed "The Bad News Bears" by some opponents, won a statewide championship last year–something Hatch called his "proudest moment as a police officer."