A cop and his kids

July 19, 1998|By SHEILA HOTCHKIN

HANCOCK - Donald R. Gossage, who once supervised an anti-gang task force in Washington, D.C., knew he would not encounter the same type of violence as Hancock's police chief.

But beneath the town's calm demeanor, he discovered its youth had problems similar to those he had seen during his 24 years in the nation's capital - single-parent families, low incomes and not enough for the kids to do.

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"I don't think it's any easier," said Gossage, 45, who left the city in favor of a slower pace. "I think you have to deal with a lot of the same issues."

He has spent nearly two years combating those problems with a more citified solution - urban-style community policing, which often has been overlooked in small towns even as it has gained popularity in metropolitan areas.


His efforts have included everything from community service to white-water rafting trips. The goal is to give kids something to do while providing them with role models.

The method proved something of an anomaly in Hancock, and some residents were suspicious of a police force that went beyond simple law enforcement.

"We have some citizenry that feels a chief should be out doing his job instead of going out and playing with kids," said Mayor Daniel A. Murphy, although he has supported the program from the beginning.

But as the program posted one success after another, some disbelievers became supporters.

"After a couple of successes ... we then had a number of people come up and say, 'Well I think it's a good idea,'" Gossage said.

Said Murphy: "The feedback that I get from parents is so positive. There's a whole lot of people saying, 'What you've done with the kids - it's wonderful.'"

Something to do

Bud Bikle, 16, moved to Hancock from Hagerstown three years ago. While he said the area offers good hunting, there is little for him to do in the town.

Gossage heard similar complaints from a number of teenagers after joining the Hancock force in August 1996.

"I started talking to the kids and they said, 'Well, we ain't got nothing to do,'" he said.

Some even slammed local police, saying, "'the only thing the police do is give you a ticket, lock you up and tell you to move on,'" he said.

Meanwhile, adults said they found the officers indifferent to the town.

"It was my feeling that in a smaller community, the department should actually be a lot closer to the community," said Gossage, who lives in a house across the parking lot from the police department with his wife and 9-year-old daughter.

So he applied for a federal grant for youth programs similar to those awarded to the Washington Metropolitan Police during his tenure there.

Under the grant, Hancock provides $5,000 a year and the federal government adds $15,000.

"The initial feeling from the council was we didn't have that $5,000," Gossage said. "So I said I'd find the money in my current budget if I could just get approval."

The town council unanimously supported the idea. Gossage's application for the money was approved and the grant started on March 1, 1997.

The money has financed everything from rafting trips to paintball outings to three-on-three basketball tournaments.

None of the town's youth are excluded from the chief's efforts, the mayor said. His events range from pool parties to pool hall tournaments.

"He continues to reach some of the areas that the community might think a little unreachable," Murphy said.

The other two officers, who had never worked with Hancock's kids before Gossage's arrival, have donated much of their own time to the project as well.

"I thought it was a great idea," said Officer Shawn Tasker, who organizes the programs with Gossage and Officer Michael Ruppenkamp. "It keeps the police officers in touch with the youth in town."

And some of Hancock's teens have noticed the difference.

"He'll set something up and it makes Hancock not boring," Bikle said.

Support from the community

The program is beginning to draw support from all over the community.

Ralph Donnelly said he has seen youthful mischief and boredom result in vandalism, harassment and arson during his 65 years in Hancock.

"If it takes them off the street and gives them something to do, that's the main thing," said Donnelly, who has donated money toward the effort.

Gossage appreciates the support: "So far this year, a number of citizens in this community have actually donated money toward the program. It makes us feel good."

Boyd J. Michael III, principal of Hancock Middle-Senior High through the last school year, became a partner in the project during his tenure at the school.

Michael helped identify "at-risk" kids who might benefit from the program, Gossage said. The two monitored everything from sudden drops in grades to run-ins with the law.

But not all of the participants were drafted, Michael said. "I think a lot of kids volunteered themselves for the program," he said.

According to Gossage, the program's impact on the crime rate is not yet clear in crime statistics.

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