Annapolis police invite at-risk kids to a day of wholesome fun

As the 32-foot Team All-Tackle Boat begins moving away from the shore at Sandy Point State Park and toward the deeper waters of the Chesapeake Bay, 10-year-old Key'Waun Downs leans against the rail of the boat, sticking his head into the breeze.

The Annapolis Elementary School fourth-grader, who is “small for his age” and wears his hair in cornrows, turns to his new friends to explain the best way to catch a rockfish.

“You wait really, really quiet and let them swim around,” Key'Waun says, holding in laughter. “Then, boom! They bite, and you pull 'em up.”

Key'Waun can't control the giggling anymore; he's too excited to reel in the fish he's been promised he'll catch. And on the other end of the boat, Sgt. Eric Crane of the Annapolis Police Department can't contain his smile, either.

But Crane's cheery morning can't be credited to the fish or even the overcast skies helping to dull this area's typically fierce humidity. He's grinning because he knows fishing poles and bait hooks — rather than guns or illegal drugs — occupy Key'Waun's mind on this Tuesday morning.

For an at-risk boy like Key'Waun — one of seven children raised by a single mother — that's something to be proud of.

“These kids aren't exposed to much outside of their house or their neighborhoods,” Crane says as the boat picks up speed. “It feels good to have them enjoying something like this.”

The trip to the Chesapeake Bay is part of the weeklong Annapolis Police Youth Fishing Camp, which is open to children identified by the city's police as at risk of gang violence or drug abuse.

There are 18 campers, all wearing yellow camp T-shirts, along with supervising police officers and professional fishermen scattered on eight boats headed into the bay. Nick Gutierrez, 14, and Adrian Powell, 13, join Crane and Key'Waun on the Team All-Tackle Boat.

The four hours of fishing ahead will keep the campers out of dangerous situations for the day and provide an activity for them to latch onto in the future.

But the day also lets the kids see police officers in a different light, Crane says. No longer is Crane just the man in the patrol car whom the kids have been told to stay away from. Now he's a friend — even a fishing buddy — to the three campers on the boat.

“I didn't know cops liked to fish,” says Nick, who has his left ear pierced and a tattoo across his chest, though he won't begin his freshman year at Annapolis High until the fall.

When fisherman Luke Thatcher stops the boat's engine, the vessel is several yards from the Bay Bridge, swaying toward the structure's pillars.

Thatcher and his father, David Thatcher, hand out rods, already baited with worms, to the campers.

“Drop the line in until it hits the bottom,” he says.

Then it's time to execute the first step of Key'Waun's fish-catching plan — the wait.

Thirteen years ago, Crane helped establish the fishing camp, which is free and financed entirely by donations. The 19-year police veteran already knows many of the kids chosen for the program because he's made arrests or conducted investigations in their neighborhoods.

And often, Crane reunites with former campers years later.

“So many of them I'll see in town, and they'll come up to me and we'll talk. They seem like they're doing very well,” Crane says. “But there are a few I run into in not such a good situation. Sometimes I have to deal with things I was hoping I didn't. I still think the ratio is very good.”

As Crane finishes his sentence, Key'Waun sprints around the sergeant to watch Nick reel in a white perch. Nick yanks his rod, and the small fish comes flying out of the bay. The line of Nick's pole — plus the fish on the end of it — swings to the right as he pulls his rod in.

“Get it!” Key'Waun yells.

“I got it, I got it,” Nick replies with a chuckle as he turns to Crane and grabs the fish. “That was pretty cool.”

Of course, catching smaller fish isn't the goal. As Key'Waun puts it, “They're just food for the bigger ones.”

Eight fishing poles are cast into the bay from the back of the Team All-Tackle Boat, with the rods secured on board. Each camper already has caught several baitfish, and they're now waiting for the rockfish to bite.

To pass time, Key'Waun discusses repeating the first grade because he struggled to learn to read and says he wants to become a Marine. Adrian mentions his dream of playing for the Ravens.

Then they turn to Nick.

“I want to be a gangster,” he says with a big smile.

Crane looks across the boat at Nick, whom he has bantered with for much of the trip. Rather than quickly dispute Nick's ambition to join a gang, the sergeant approaches him and talks about his own tattoos, showing the 14-year-old the design he has on his calf.

He then switches topics.

“Don't do gangs,” Crane says. “You can find something you love to do — why would you throw your life away?”

“Yeah,” Nick says.

Minutes later, Luke Thatcher interrupts the conversation.

“We got one,” he says, pointing at Adrian. “Come on, you got this one.”

Adrian grabs the rod and reels the fish in as Key'Waun scurries to see.

Adrian keeps reeling, though it's getting harder. Finally the fish comes into sight, and Thatcher snags it out of the water.

“Awesome!” Adrian shouts.

The three campers combine to reel in rockfish averaging more than 20 inches every few minutes until finally Thatcher hands a rod to Crane.

“Your turn, Sarge.”

The fish makes it difficult for Crane, though. The sergeant spends several seconds tugging on the rod before the fish — the biggest one the campers have seen all day — surfaces about 20 feet away from the boat.

Key'Waun excitedly leans over the railing, Adrian stands next to Crane and even Nick comes over.

“Get it, Sarge!” Nick shouts, patting Crane on the shoulder.

Crane reels it in and eventually pulls up the fish, the biggest he's caught in 13 years of running camp, he says.

But the size of the fish isn't what matters. The campers' camaraderie with a police officer is.

There's no telling how the lives of Key'Waun, Adrian and Nick will unfold. But it can't hurt that they'll have the memory of excitedly cheering for a police sergeant.

“That's all we're trying to do,” Crane says, “is have a little fun and show kids that cops are not bad guys, show them we're human.”

Back on shore, Luke Thatcher cleans and fillets the rockfish, puts the meat in plastic bags and hands them out to Key'Waun, Adrian and Nick. As the three kids walk from the dock to the parking lot where the camp's white van is parked, each lifts his bag to eye level to get a better look at his haul for the day.

Crane's hope, of course, is that dinner isn't the only thing the boys take away from their day on the Chesapeake.

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