Troubled teens find solace, redemption in Carmel PD program

Around 20 years ago in the city of Los Angeles, Frank DiPaola, a 25-year LAPD veteran, started the Juvenile Impact Program, which became a statewide program designed to keep kids off the streets, running in towns across California and eventually around the world.

A similar program has run in Carmel since 2009 and has seen 140 kids through its process. DiPaola is currently retired but is working closely with Chief Paul Tomasi and Corporal Jeffrey D. Watkins of the Carmel Police Department who run the program. Although each program for each city is unique, the main goal of the program is to teach teens the consequences of their actions.

“It’s better to prevent crime before it happens,” says DiPaola, regarding the creation of the program. “I don’t work for the morgue, and I’m not just an enforcer.”

Here in Carmel, there is not the thriving gang culture that some other cities have, but there are still kids who run into trouble with the law.

“A lot of juveniles were being contacted by the police for minor stuff: curfews, cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana,” Chief Tomasi says. “[There was] a lack of trust with the police. Because what are we actually accomplishing? What it appears to the public is that we’re just harassing the kids.”

In Carmel, the program is set up as second chance for teens to scrub their recorders clean of any infractions with the law. The overall goal of the program is to prevent crimes such as drinking and driving and using illegal drugs before they happen.

“[The program is] designed for two things,” Tomasi adamantly states. “One, to help kids understand when you make a mistake, ‘How do I make better decisions in my life?’ [Two], to atone for a mistake without having it on your criminal record.”

According to Tomasi and DiPaola, the class meets fairy irregularly. The program is two days long, the first a day of exploring consequences. On the second day, officers work with teens providing a moral compass through the church or another moral code the teen wishes to follow—religion is not forced upon kids who enter the program. Teens also have to serve 30 to 60 hours of community service, depending on the severity of the initial arrest.

DiPaola’s religion was the driving force behind the creation of the program; he felt to fulfill his duty as a good Christian, it was his job to better these children who had grown up on the street. To this day, his beliefs are what keep him with the program in Carmel. That and, according DiPaola, he’s surprisingly good at working with teenagers.

For teens in Carmel, a life of crime and gang violence is not the reason for entrance into the program. For the most part, the program consists of kids who have made mistakes with drugs and alcohol.

For instance, one teen’s story is one that could have been avoided; she was taken in for possession of alcohol and curfew violation. For her, the program was intimidating, at first.

“I knew every single kid in the program,” says the student, recalling her experience. “During the program I relaxed, because it seemed like Frank really wanted to help us. The focus was mostly on ‘You made one bad mistake and that doesn’t have to be a pattern.’”

She says the officers made her feel comfortable and that she learned a lot from the program about making better choices in her life.

“I’ve been two months sober,” the student says. “I definitely think that the program gave me the strength to make healthier decisions.”

Yet some teens don’t share this sentiment. According to the student mentioned above, some kids blew off the program, some going as far as bad-mouthing the Carmel Police Department while still in the program. For Tomasi and the rest of the Carmel P.D., however, they still think that the Youth Diversion Program is an important tool in bridging the gap between teens and cops.

Monterey, Salinas, Marina and Seaside all have programs similar to the one in Carmel. The Carmel Police Department even takes referrals from the Pacific Grove P.D. Youths all over Monterey County have a chance to redeem themselves after making a huge life mistake, but only one chance. The program is a one-time deal, and after that it’s up to the teen to stay out of trouble.

According to Frank DiPaola, the goal is to prevent teens from getting into self-destructive cycles of underaged drinking and use of illicit drugs, and the officers who volunteer for the program are there to help. They consider it an important part of their police work.

-Archer Michaels