In these days of the Columbine High School shootings and countless other similar tragedies involving youngsters, we often allow these violent acts to overshadow the good deeds that young people perform in communities across the nation, each and every day.

Take, for example, Tony Casalino, an 8-year-old boy in Ft. Myers, Fla., who intercepted a German shepherd that was about to attack his 3-year-old nephew. Tony suffered several severe and painful dog bites in order to save his nephew.

Another example is John Wilt, a 10-year-old boy living in Cape Coral, Fla., who agreed to be home-schooled so he could help his mother care for his stepfather after a construction accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.

None of these heroic acts drew national headlines. Fortunately, however, they did draw the attention of the "Do the Right Thing" program in Miami, which recognizes and rewards young people for good deeds that would otherwise go unnoticed.

About a decade ago, Donald Warshaw, who was then the chief of the Miami Police Department, officially honored a Miami teenager who had found a loaded gun at his school and had turned it in to authorities, despite peer pressure to do otherwise. That awards ceremony provided the impetus for a program that has become international in scope. The program now claims more than 32 chapters nationwide, including 14 in Florida. There is even a burgeoning chapter in the United Kingdom.

The program's goals are:

  • To reinforce socially desirable behavior among youth.
  • To demonstrate that good kids are newsworthy.
  • To foster positive relations between the police department and area businesses.
  • To enhance the relationship between underprivileged youth and police officers.
  • To develop a program network of chapters that will benefit youth nationwide.

How It Works

Program chapters have committees that decide which nominated children will be honored. Committee procedures vary from agency to agency. In Venice, Fla., for instance, the board is composed of local chiefs. In other locations, such as Punta Gorda, Fla., community leaders and agency employees make up a board that reviews monthly submissions and chooses the winners. In the Miami area, "Do the Right Thing" receives more than 1,000 nominations each month. Only 10 are selected as winners. Then, once a year, finalists are chosen for the regional dinner and awards ceremony.

Don't think that this is just a program for large cities such as Miami. Several years ago, when Chief Arnold A. Gibbs left Miami to become the new chief of police in Cape Coral, Fla., he brought  the "Do the Right Thing Program" with him and established a chapter in southwest Florida. At that time, I was assistant chief of police in Punta Gorda. Our department was very excited about this program as an extension of our commitment to partner with the community. Through the efforts of the late Captain Don Cerbone, a retired New York City police officer who volunteered his services to Punta Gorda, we established a program in our city of less than 15,000.

The "Do the Right Thing" program was  the single most significant program that I had seen implemented during my 21 years with the Punta Gorda Police. Everyone embraced it: members of the police department, city council members, local service organizations, and numerous members of the private sector, who provided the financial backing so important to the program's success. Yes, that's right. The program is funded almost entirely by members of the business community and local service organizations through monetary and "in-kind" donations.

The Punta Gorda program continues to flourish today under the guidance of the program coordinator, Officer Melissa Reynolds.

"Charlotte County (Punta Gorda) is blessed with young people who are doing great things in our community," Officer Reynolds told me recently. "We honor kids for a variety of good deeds, such as turning in found property, conservation efforts, community service, aiding the elderly and disabled, even the occasional act of saving the life of a person or an animal.  Sometimes we honor them just for being good role models for their peers. We feel that every young person deserves to be recognized for their efforts and without the 'Do The Right Thing Program,' the public may not be aware of these good deeds."

Get the Word Out

Once your agency establishes its own local chapter and the program is up and running, you can organize a publicity blitz through your local media to help make local citizens aware of the program. Next, you can distribute nomination forms throughout the community through local newspapers and in conjunction with the local schools. The nomination forms can be filled out by anyone in the community who knows of a child whose accomplishments, attitudes or outstanding efforts make him or her a positive role model for his or her peers. These forms are then mailed to the program director at the law enforcement agency, who typically meets on a monthly basis with a committee to choose the monthly winners.

Many times, teachers and school administrators nominate students. Even local police officers will enter the names of deserving recipients. One such winner was 12-year-old Roxanne Walters who was recognized for the hundreds of hours she has volunteered working at the local library since she was 10 years old.[PAGEBREAK]

Once the winners are chosen, a monthly awards ceremony is held, usually at a city hall or other comparable government building. These ceremonies are well attended by council members, commissioners, friends and families of the recipients. As media events, they highlight positive interaction between police officers and local youth. Said Chief Gibbs, the students "are the true champions and modern-day heroes, worthy of all the accolades and praises which they receive. Let us place them in the limelight and hold them up as role models for their peers to emulate." And, in these times, positive role models for our young people are sorely needed.

Continued Recognition

Each month the honored youths are rewarded not only by the ceremony, but by being given prizes that range from official "Do the Right Thing" caps, T- shirts and the law enforcement agency badge, to trophies, tote bags, admittance tickets to sporting events, gift certificates to local businesses and much more. Then at the end of the year, "finalists" are chosen among the monthly winners to be honored at a regional awards ceremony.

The "Do The Right Thing" program does not just hand out the awards and then  move on to the next recipients. Officer Reynolds thought it was important to note that in her chapter, board members strive to keep the kids involved with the program and the Punta Gorda Police Department by inviting past winners to various events in the community year after year. This helps reinforce the goals of the program. Past winners wear their program shirts and participate in various volunteer events, such as parades and charity events where the public again recognizes these young people.

The Miami chapter, under the leadership of Executive Director Jodi Atkison, took seven of its honorees on a British Airways-sponsored trip to England. The students, Atkison and other officers of the of the Miami Police Department spent four days touring London, where the Miami winners met with the winners from the London chapter. Atkison recently told me that she is "confident 'Do the Right Thing' will continue to grow by leaps and bounds until this program becomes a household name on a local, state, national and international level."

Unlike some "feel good" programs, that seem to come and go in our society, the "Do the Right Thing" program is still going strong in its birthplace - Miami. It has even been credited by the Miami Times as playing "a significant role in crime reduction." Said Warshaw, "The direct correlation between the drop in crime and prevention initiatives like 'Do the Right Thing' is hard to measure, but it subtly exists."

Recently appointed Miami Chief of Police Raul Martinez  added, "It is hard to believe, what originated as a small idea in Miami, has emerged into an international program with 32 chapters in the United States and a chapter in the United Kingdom. The concept for 'Do the Right Thing' is simple, yet effective. That is what makes it an achievable endeavor for every law enforcement agency in the country. The City of Miami Police Department is very proud to be affiliated with this program since its inception."

The only reason the program has not been even more successful is lack of national exposure. In speaking with agency heads and even community policing advocates, I am constantly amazed at how many are still unaware of this program. It's a great way to promote positive role models and allows law enforcement officers to have positive interactions with our youth.

I have always been keenly aware of the importance of police/community partnerships. I grew up on the mean streets of Newark, N.J., and was profoundly affected by my early admiration of one Newark police officer who constantly interacted with the kids hanging out on the streets.  Long before the term "community policing" was coined and popularized, this officer, adept at community policing, inspired me to pursue my career in law enforcement. Meanwhile, many of my young friends grew up to become criminals and drug addicts.

It was just this type of interaction between police and the community that led the Miami Police Department to establish "Do the Right Thing."

For more information, on this nonprofit program, contact Miami Police Department "Do the Right Thing" Program Executive Director Jodi Atkison (305) 579-3344.

John A. Makholm has served in law enforcement for more than 26 years, retiring as chief of police with the Punta Gorda (Fla) Police Department. Makholm earned his Juris Doctorate  from Stetson College of Law and currently works for the law firm of Marino & Walsh in St. Petersburg, Fla. The firm concentrates on defending law enforcement and corrections officers and their agencies. Makholm also serves as an officer with the Treasure Island (Fla.) Police Department, and is an Advisory Board Member of POLICE.

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