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Back to Archives | Back to July 2006 Contents 

McGruff House: A Crime Prevention Tool for Local Law Enforcement

By Tibby Milne, Executive Director, Utah Council for Crime Prevention, Salt Lake City, Utah

he McGruff House Program started in Utah in 1982 in response to several child abductions by child sexual predator Arthur Gary Bishop. Local volunteers, law enforcement representatives, and the school community came together to protect the children. Using the iconic McGruff the Crime Dog image, already a part of the law enforcement community crime prevention education programs and activities, the program became a success and is found today in more than 600 communities nationwide. For 25 years McGruff has helped law enforcement Take a Bite Out of Crime.

McGruff House sign
What Is a McGruff House?
A McGruff House is a temporary safe haven for children who find themselves in threatening or frightening situations. Children are trained in school or in another neighborhood setting to recognize a McGruff House sign placed in the front window of a house or apartment whose adult residents have cleared a criminal background check and been trained to provide temporary assistance to children in emergency situations. The message of the program is "We'll call for help."

The program addresses the needs of urban, inner-city, and suburban children and families and serves as a deterrent to criminal activity. Children can go to a McGruff House to avoid bullying, drug and gang activity, attempted abductions, and a host of other threats.

The McGruff House program anticipates harm and solves problems by addressing their causes. It also helps build and sustain the community's health through positive peer pressure and neighborhood standards. These informal social controls are major avenues by which the community defines, teaches, and encourages acceptable behavior. Effective standards require that the community members own them and play an active part in developing them.

Several state legislatures have mandated or resolved that the McGruff House program be the official block parent program for communities in those states. The McGruff House symbol of safety creates a network across the United States engaged in the involvement of adults watching out for and helping children.

Implementing a McGruff House Program
One of the program's qualities is its implementation flexibility. The program is most often coordinated by local school parent organizations, with varying degrees of law enforcement support. In some areas, the law enforcement agency takes the lead and keeps track of the serial-numbered signs, assigning the locations, and training McGruff House volunteers. In other communities, fraternal organizations, Neighborhood Watch Association groups, and even faith-based groups coordinate the program. The decision about who is to coordinate the program is left to each community to make.

Because law enforcement professionals are the most credible source of crime prevention information, children and adults alike perceive them as experts on crime prevention programs and strategies such as the McGruff House program. This makes law enforcement participation in the program critical.

One vital function of the local law enforcement participation is the required background checks of prospective McGruff House volunteers, which are renewed annually. Volunteers are reminded that it is a privilege to be a McGruff House volunteer, not a right. Law enforcement agencies can remove the sign at anytime. McGruff House volunteers are also told that they should not provide first aid (except in emergency situations), act as a guard or as a neighborhood posse, enforce the law, provide food or other creature comforts, or guarantee safety.

The McGruff House program requires a strategic alliance between the community and law enforcement. Though community members may take the lead in the program, they usually do so only with the knowledge that the law enforcement experts are readily available.

The McGruff House program is an excellent complement to community policing. It demonstrates the benefits of law enforcement, schools, neighborhoods, and entire communities working together to protect the community's children. The McGruff House program supports community policing by emphasizing the citizen-law enforcement partnership necessary for public safety; developing a program in which police and community residents share decision-making and implementation responsibilities; promoting understanding and trust among community members and police; providing law enforcement with a vehicle to empower community residents; and establishing and reinforcing the goal shared by both groups, namely, safer environments for the community's children.

McGruff Houses around the United States
Several police agencies have adopted the McGruff House program and are currently involved in producing quality programs for their communities through these efforts.

Pocatello, Idaho: The McGruff House program in Pocatello was started in 1990 by Ann Pierce, whose daughter was a victim of an attempted abduction. Ann was a member of her local PTA organization and approached the Pocatello Police Department for help organizing a McGruff House program. The program is currently housed with the Pocatello Neighborhood Watch Association, with a member of the executive committee assuming the responsibility of McGruff House program coordinator. This coordinator donated 595 hours last year for the program. The community volunteer works with the police department's crime prevention specialist, Kim Ellis, to deliver the program throughout Bannock County. The Chubbuck Police Department and the Bannock County Sheriff's Office also participate in the countywide initiative. Currently there are 575 McGruff Houses in this program. "McGruff House plays a significant role in providing for the safety of the children in our community," said Police Chief Edward Guthrie of Pocatello.

Plano, Texas: The Plano Police Department began its program in 1991 and have more than 900 McGruff Houses organized among the 38 local schools. They have consistently produced a model McGruff House program and recently translated some of the program materials in Spanish. The police department's Exemplary School program allows participating schools to earn points for each McGruff House volunteer participating within a school's attendance boundaries. To qualify for the program, a school needs generally one McGruff House participant for every 18 students. The police department reports that additional points can be earned by the school when they allow crime prevention officers from the police department to conduct McGruff House training for students at the school. A school can lose points if it falls out of compliance with certain rules of the program. There are 18 Exemplary Schools in the Plano program. Each school receives a flag that is posted at the school identifying it as an exemplary participant McGruff House program.

Kohler, Wisconsin: The Kohler Police Department has been involved in the McGruff House program since 1996. Patrol Officer Larry J. Leonhardt described it as "a very excellent program, with very good citizen input and cooperation." The Kohler Police Department and the Kohler PTA experience good success in getting residents to sign up and participate in the McGruff House program. The Kohler Police Department, in conjunction with the village's Department of Public Works, has begun placing metal signs announcing that Kohler is a McGruff House community on all main roadways to the village.

Olathe, Kansas: The Olathe McGruff House program administered by the Olathe Police Department began in 1992 and today comprises more than 500 McGruff Houses in 25 neighborhood school districts. The success of this program has been the partnership between the police department and the 31 local school volunteer coordinators. Each school identifies a local McGruff House program coordinator to administer the program with the police department. The Olathe Police Department's Web site features news articles and tips for McGruff House coordinators and parents about the McGruff House program and other family safety issues. "The McGruff House Program is a valuable asset to the Olathe Police Department," said Olathe Police Chief Janet Thiessen. "The program is a collaborative partnership between the police department, our school district and our community. McGruff Houses not only provide a safe haven for children on their way to and from school, but they provide an excellent means of warning neighborhoods about stranger danger threats. I strongly recommend the McGruff House program to every police department."

McGruff Truck Program
The Olathe community had such a good experience with McGruff House that in 2003 the Olathe School District applied to become a participant in the McGruff Truck program. In 1986 a Utah-based utility company asked that their vehicles be identified as rolling McGruff Houses, and the McGruff Truck program was born. Today, fleet operators in other U.S. jurisdictions participate in the McGruff Truck program. In Olathe there are currently 34 vehicles with 60 employees.

The truck program uses trained drivers and their vehicles to assist children who find themselves in emergencies. The driver stops, goes to the child, identifies the problem, and calls the appropriate authorities for help. Law enforcement officials work with the participating companies and municipalities to organize and deliver the program. A key role for law enforcement is that of providing training for the drivers, company managers, and of course the children.

In January 1992 the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada, spearheaded a 23-member coalition of utility companies, law enforcement agencies, media representatives, and school employees to form a McGruff Truck youth watch coalition. Educational materials are distributed to teachers for use in their classrooms.

Bill Tullock, a crime prevention officer, is the Las Vegas Metro Police Department liaison with the countywide coalition. "Our coalition has been strong for the last several years, and we average seven to twelve incidents per year," Tullock said. "For that reason alone, we think it is a worthwhile program."

The coalition serves about 1.6 million people in the Las Vegas metro area. Most of the coalition partners have made the program part of their training curriculum for new drivers. "Some of those incidents don't necessarily involve children, and that's okay," said Tullock. "The population knows that the drivers are out there doing a public service while they attend to their work. It's valuable." The North Las Vegas Police Department, the Henderson Police Department, and the Clark County School District Police Department work together to make the McGruff Truck coalition a success.

There are more than 170 companies and municipalities participating in the McGruff Truck program nationwide. More than half of these programs are found in local municipalities and are coordinated by local law enforcement agencies. The McGruff Truck program provides one more way for the local community, partnering with law enforcement, to provide safer neighborhoods for its residents.

Becoming a Part of the Network
Becoming a part of the McGruff House Network is easy and inexpensive. Interested parties need only to call the network at 801-486-8768 or 877-367-6646 and leave their contact information with a network representative, and specify whether they want information faxed or mailed. The application for a McGruff House kit is included with the information packet. After the local agency completes the application and returns it to the McGruff House Network, the agency receives a kit that includes camera-ready reproducible materials and a training DVD for children and program volunteers. There is a nominal fee for this kit.

McGruff House signs need to be ordered on law enforcement letterhead. Once the background checks on the prospective volunteers are successfully completed and the volunteer is accepted locally into the network, then the house signs can be distributed to those who meet the requirements. There is an annual renewal process based on the traditional school year, and police should conduct background checks of everyone in the home 18 years and older. Some agencies have even stricter guidelines regarding acceptance of the volunteers.

Safeguards have been built in for communities wishing to adopt the program. All educational material has been reviewed by the national McGruff House Network's legal representation in partnership with the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC). NCPC holds the trademark for McGruff the Crime Dog, and McGruff House Network uses the image under a program license agreement.

In summary, the McGruff House and McGruff Truck programs are effective crime prevention tools. We often say that if a suspicious character were to go down a certain street and see a McGruff House sign at a house, a Neighborhood Watch sign along the street, and maybe a police cruiser in the driveway of a home on that street, he will probably look for an easier target.

These programs also serve as a bridge between law enforcement and the public. In fact, the programs are an excellent way to develop the public's understanding that crime prevention is a community issue, and crime prevention is everyone's business.   ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 7, July 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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