DEL MAR — The talking crime dog provoked laughs as well as strange looks from people at the San Diego County Fair as he patrolled the infield area of the pavilion and quizzed kids and parents about safety issues on June 23.
McGruff the Crime Dog will be on site at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department crime prevention booth from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., until July 4. The toy canine stands as tall as a toddler while he’s sitting in his squad car, and doesn’t need to use the siren to make people stop and look as his jaw opens and he strikes up a conversation.
“People try to figure out who’s talking,” said Jackie Cruz, a crime prevention specialist with the County’s sheriff’s department.
She said McGruff seems to melt down people’s ages and definitely opens up conversation.
“Always hold your mom’s hand when you cross the street,” McGruff said to Sergio Griffin, 3, of San Diego. Sergio couldn’t stop laughing as McGruff’s car spun around in circles. His mother, Anna Griffin, said that seeing McGruff was her son’s favorite experience at the fair — and that they had just went on an elephant ride. The 2011 theme of the fair is “Race to the Fair,” and the sheriff’s department brought in McGruff this year and set up a kid-sized street area to stick with the theme, said Marlee Chapman, crime prevention specialist who is supervising the event.
Children who visit the booth are taken to the different sections of the miniature areas, such as the railroad track or stoplight, and are asked if they know the traffic safety rules.
“They’re supposed to identify signs if they’re old enough. They get a package of silly bands if they do,” she said. The silly bands — a stretchy, rubber like bracelet popular amongst kids — were custom made, Chapman said, and featured bands with shapes such as a skateboard, patrol car and sheriff’s star.
Car seat safety, skateboard safety, bicycle safety and road sign information was some of the educational material on hand for parents and kids. At least two sheriff’s department volunteers work the booth area with the crime prevention specialists, Chapman said. But volunteer Dawn Wagner said although she is helping with kids, she is not helping with operating the remote controlled McGruff because its operator was doing a great job.
“She is superb on the microphone. She is excellent,” Wagner said about Carmela Lutz, a crime prevention specialist for the Vista Sheriff’s Station who was the voice and movement behind McGruff. Lutz spoke into a headset while effortlessly controlling the movement of McGruff’s head, eyes and car. She initiated conversation with both parents and kids, and asked whatever safety related question came to mind.
“Do you always wear your seat belt when you’re in a car?” McGruff asked a child who walked by with a parent. “Does mommy know that most car seats are put in incorrectly?” McGruff asked a mother who pushed a baby stroller. Lutz said she really enjoyed interacting with the people, and that the kids were well informed on the topic of safety and of calling 9-1-1.
Lutz said she believes that parents talk more to their kids about what’s on the news and the Internet. “The kids are a lot more sophisticated these days,” she said.