Aug. 3, 2001
(LAUGHLIN, Nev.) -- Police Lt. Ed Pitchford found a good way to cut down on residential burglaries -- working with truant students.
"They are just bored, with nothing to do," Pitchford said. "Every year you have a group of kids who get together and form loosely knit groups and go out and do crimes."
Before his retirement from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police last year, Pitchford commanded a substation in Laughlin for a decade. Laughlin did not have the budget to provide police officers assigned to the schools, so Pitchford set up a special patrol to go after truants.
There were a total of 35 officers assigned to the Laughlin substation. Pitchford said that he looked for a special combination of toughness and compassion for those working with children and teenagers.
"You don't want someone whose just up there being friends with the kids," he said.
Laughlin, 95 miles south of Las Vegas, is an unincorporated community in Clark County with about 8,500 residents. The town was named after Don Laughlin, founder of the Riverside Resort, which offers gambling along with other types of indoor and outdoor recreation. Laughlin is just across the river from the larger Bullhead City.
In spite of its small size, Pitchford said, Laughlin offers opportunities for young people to get into trouble, including a major methamphetamine problem.
Pitchford began the juvenile program in 1999. Officers assigned to work with the schools got in touch with officials every day to check on habitual truants. When they identified kids in trouble, they worked with social service agencies to get them the help they needed. Once the schools found the program worked, the police got office space in the high school and elementary school to make the task easier.
"The students who are problems in the schools are generally the same ones that cause problems in the community," he said. With every new class of students you have a group that commits auto theft, larcenies, robberies, burglaries and other crimes."
The program was organized by the sergeant and four officers in the substation's "problem-solving unit" -- the small-town equivalent of a detective division. But Pitchford said he also used uniformed officers as long as they had the right personalities. Ptichford said that Sgt. Dave Swoboda was responsible for much of the program's success, combining "incredible compassion" with being a "top-notch investigator."
Crime dropped dramatically, Ptichford said.
"Our residential burglaries went to almost zero," he added.
Pitchford believes that the best thing police can do with troubled teenagers is to catch them before they commit crimes serious enough to justify a custodial sentence, that once youngsters are sent to residential facilities they are usually lost.
"Those are the ones who graduate and go right into prison," he said.
Pitchford said that police departments who do not have truant programs are "missing a great opportunity" to make their communities safer and to keep troubled teenagers from becoming adult criminals. And he has found that it works for departments large and small. He credits a similar program in Las Vegas with cutting the burglary rate by 30 percent.