Officer Friendly and his friends are ready to go.
There’s Short Stuff, Ready Fox, Fluff the cat, Perky the bird, a little girl named Rosie – she likes boys – and her friend, Grant.
Donning his official “police” uniform pinned with an official Officer Friendly badge, Friendly and his puppet pals take the stage in school auditoriums packed with children and at law enforcement events such as National Night Out.
Officer Friendly and his buddies perform funny routines on stage, almost always working up the elementary school crowds into a frenzy of giggles and laughter.
But through the gags comes a serious message.
The youngsters are being instilled with life-saving lessons from Officer Friendly on behalf of ReadyOC, the official name of a public service campaign aimed at educating the community on emergency preparedness.
At a recent assembly at Andrew Jackson Elementary School in Santa Ana, Reed and Ready Fox provided a lesson on what to do during an earthquake.
“Get under something strong so it won’t fall on top of you,” Reed shouts. “And hold on to it, because it shakes.”
Ready Fox pipes in, yelling in a high-pitched, screechy voice: “If you are ready and you know, clap your hands.”
Hundreds of first- and second-graders respond by clapping in unison.
When Officer Friendly isn’t wearing a uniform, and surrounded by puppets, he is John Reed, 75, a retired member of the Santa Ana Police Department.
Since 2011, when Reed joined with ReadyOC, he has delivered his safety messages at 284 assemblies, equating to 59,173 students countywide, not including National Night Out presentations, a spokeswoman for ReadyOC said.
“It just motivates me … It stimulates and inspires me,” Reed said of the collective energy displayed by swarms of kids in front of him. “I feed off that reaction.”
Reed’s safety presentations are a carry-over from his 28-year career as a Santa Ana police officer.
In the early 1970s, Reed spearheaded SAPD’s new community relations division.
“Unlike patrol, where you are out there to fight crime, what I loved about community relations is that it got you out there in the community,” said Reed, who served in the U.S. Marines before going into law enforcement. “I loved doing that … getting to know the community and giving the community a chance to get to know you.”
The 1970s also saw a spike in drug use, Reed said, and with it, came negative sentiments toward law enforcement by some young people, especially from those who were having run-ins with the police, he said.
Through community relations, Reed got involved in youth-oriented programs such as “Inside Out” and “Let’s Talk,” which were precursors to some of today’s initiatives organized by law enforcement.
“We got a chance to quell a lot of those (negative) feelings and emotions,” he said. “We were just letting them know that we were there to serve them.”
When the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, commonly known as DARE, kicked off in 1983, Reed was asked to organize that program for Santa Ana PD.
The program is typically taught in elementary schools.
Reed came up with an idea to make stronger and more lasting impressions on the elementary school children who were being taught the DARE program.
He noticed how his own children were drawn to Sesame Street puppets such as Bert and Ernie and Oscar the Grouch.
Reed also knew of the popularity of McGruff, the Crime Dog and his high-profile “Take a Bite out of Crime” campaign.
Reed contacted a friend who crafted hand puppets and had the artist create a puppet he could use in his DARE presentations.
Short Stuff McGruff was born and was a hit with the kids during Reed’s DARE presentations.
Over time, Reed had more puppets created and developed new characters.
He studied videos of ventriloquists and learned to create different voices and personalities for each puppet.
But he knows not to use the same voice for more than one puppet.
“Those kids will see through that in a second,” Reed said.
Now he has about 20 puppets and might bring two or three to an assembly or National Night Out presentations, which he has performed in several Orange County cities.
“I think we are very blessed,” said Maricella Longacre, principal of Jackson Elementary School in Santa Ana. “The kids absolutely love him. He is really good with them and of course the puppets help. For days afterwards, we hear about the puppets.”
To learn more about Officer Friendly and the school assembly program please visit ReadyOC.org