When Jeannine Andrews is driving and her children see a police car nearby, the first thing they ask is, "Are you speeding?" she says.
Youngsters can easily get the idea that police only show up when laws are being broken, but Andrews said that perception has been fading among her children in recent weeks.
Each Monday during the summer, she takes them to Talbot Springs Pool in Columbia, one of the sites where the Howard County Police Department is holding its Community Athletic Program, a mobile recreation center with activities for youth.
"For the most part, when there's a policeman, there's always a little bit of, 'Are we doing something wrong?' " said Andrews, a Laurel resident. "I think it's great that they can see the police officers doing something [other than] giving tickets."
Launched in 2008, the program allows children to interact with law enforcement officers in a community setting.
Howard school resource officers and youth service officers supervise the program, which runs July 1 through Aug. 16. Most officers are familiar with the youngsters they supervise, since they work in nearby schools. They say the program offers an opportunity for youngsters to see them without their full uniforms.
"I work as a resource officer in Oakland Mills Middle and Lake Elkhorn Middle, so many of these kids are mine, and I claim them," said Howard Police Cpl. Stephanie Wall, who has become such a popular figure that some youngsters say they look forward to seeing her. She is among the officers who supervise the Community Athletic Program at Talbot Springs Pool.
"Most times when you call the police, you're not at your best, the situation is not at its best," Wall said. "And quite frankly, you don't know if the officers are at their best. In this environment, we're all in a great place.
"We all can just have fun," she said. "It's a learning experience, and we can have a chance to talk to them. And they feel more comfortable talking to us in this environment."
Other CAP locations are Blandair Park in Columbia, Celebration Community Church in Columbia, Wilde Lake Middle School and the North Laurel Community Center. County police say the program, part of the agency's crime-fighting and anti-gang strategy, targets middle- and high school-age youngsters.
Police officials said the department's youth division developed CAP, a trailer with sports gear, games and video game equipment. Funding is supplemented by the Howard County Police Foundation.
"It's really, really fun," Tori Andrews, 9, after a swim at the pool at Talbot Springs. "I'm really glad the police officers give us snacks and other stuff."
"We get to do arts and crafts, and they teach us safety," said Alexis Ball, 10, of Columbia, who attends the program at Celebration Community Church. "It's really fun, and they're nice."
Wall said the program has become popular with parents, in part because it is run by law enforcement, which all but guarantees safety for children who attend. And when parents attend with their children, there's a bonus, she said.
"I meet the parents and the siblings. I get to find out more about them, and they get to find out more about me," Wall said. "And there may be some opportunities to resolve an issue that's not crime-related. Someone maybe having a problem with housing or is homeless. I might provide them with resources or make a call on their behalf."
Day care providers such as Pamela Dorsey of Columbia takes the children from her facility for the activities at the pool and nearby parks.
"They like it because they get to go see the police officers. They really know Corporal Wall," Dorsey said. "They get to see them without their uniforms, and they're not scared."
Officers said that, due partly to the program, they are regarded by children as more approachable.
"Oftentimes when I'm out in the community, what I hear parents say is, 'See that police officer there, I'm going to get her to lock you up,' " Wall said. "I tell the parent that's a negative connotation, and then they'll be afraid to look to us for help. So it excites me that all the different kids learn we're good people, we're friendly."
Fun on the run
The Howard County Police Department's Community Athletic Program visits a different neighborhood each day of the week, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and returns on the same day in subsequent weeks. The program runs through Aug. 16 at these locations:
Mondays: Talbot Springs Pool, 9660 Basket Ring Road, Harper's Choice
Tuesdays: Blandair Park, 5750 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia
Wednesdays: Celebration Community Church, 6080 Foreland Garth, Long Reach
Thursdays: North Laurel Community Center, 9411 Whiskey Bottom Road, Laurel
Fridays: Wilde Lake Middle School, 10481 Cross Fox Lane, Columbia