A dozen or so inner city children shot hoops and played dodge ball in the gym at Maryland State Police headquarters in Pikesville yesterday, oblivious to words painted on a wall: "Within These Walls Train Maryland's Finest."
But state police volunteers in what troopers call their "SPICY program" applied the words, not to officers who normally work out in the gym, but to the children they watched.
"By no means are these kids underprivileged," said Sgt. Derek White, an assistant coordinator of the eight-week kids-and-cops project. "Basically, these are kids who are already on the right track. We just want to help them stay that way."
SPICY (an acronym for "State Police for Inner City Youth") started last summer after Superintendent Col. Larry Tolliver decided that state police needed to interact more with Baltimore City, Sergeant White said.
SPICY counselors, under the direction of 1st Sgt. Keven Gray, are role models, helping kids see police as more than gun-toting, accident-investigating, ticket writers.
"If the child sees you doing something positive, then maybe he will want to do something positive himself," said Sgt. Edward E. Johnson. "If I talk to a child today, that may save me from having to talk to that child later, in a negative way."
Police volunteers meet with the 25 children delivered to the barracks no later than 10 a.m. each Saturday by a Mass Transit Administration bus that also takes them home at 2 p.m.
The children listen to a brief discussion on topics ranging from seat-belt safety to inappropriate touching before splitting into two groups.
Half the group learns water safety skills with Cpl. Darryl Morgan of the police recruiting division. The others play and learn skills in the gym. Later, they switch.
The gym was hot yesterday. But the sweating kids racing around didn't seem to mind -- as long as it's SPICY.
"I like it because you can do things and learn about the police officers," said Denisha Burden, 8, after swimming. Other kids were doing "cannon balls" and back floats in the pool as police volunteers supervised.
Predictably, the children said they enjoyed the activities and the attention. But Maurice Allen, 12, said he learned something about himself, too.
"I learned to control my anger . . . to stop taking it out on everybody else," he said, fingering the Disney toy that came with lunch, donated to the program by the McDonald's in Pikesville.
The officers don't forget about the kids when the school bells ring. Sergeant White, Cpl. Dwight Styles, and Sergeant Gray check on "our kids" during the year, visiting schools and getting progress reports from faculty and parents.
Parent volunteers praise the officers and the program.
"A lot of the children are getting that discipline or that self-esteem that they would not get otherwise," said Yvette Brown, watching her children Alfred, 9, and Tasia, 7, prepare for their swim session.
Veronica Neal -- whose sons Emonie, 4, Ishad, 7, and Asaad, 6, are in the program -- said she likes the "male bonding" provided by the program.
"Most boys these days spend a lot of time with their mothers and it's time they had a chance to spend time with some real men," Mrs. Neal said. Her husband, Isaac, works with the program as well.
Roderick Hunt, a tractor-trailer driver and SPICY parent volunteer, said the children are learning about togetherness.
"I think the unity is the most important. Kids today learn that the first law of nature is self-preservation, but you can't live by yourself. You need people," Mr. Hunt said.