Richard Fleming has ridden in police cars 200 times, but never has committed a crime or joined the force. He rides with the cops, he says, to stay out of trouble.
A "loner," with few friends or interests other than police work, the slender, sloe-eyed 18-year-old District of Columbia youth has spent the last two years patrolling the city streets on citizen ride-along programs with police officers covering the 14th Street riot corridor and part of the downtown shopping district.
For most of the 125 citizens who sign up for the rides each month, the tours are one-time affairs. Fleming, however, rides at least two or three times a week, completing entire eight-hour shifts from 3 to 11 p.m. or 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., all because, he says, "the police are my friends."
After riding so long, he adds, "sometimes I feel I am a cop." He says he plans to join the police force when he become 21, the minimum age for D.C. recruits. Until then, he says, he'll just keep riding because he enjoys it.
A brash, yet self-confident young man, he tries to choose his company carefully, noting "You can get into troubloe just by being with the wrong crowd." Even his ride-along associates are confined to a few officers who he feels are most dedicated and competent in their jobs.
Employed as an officer worker in a Virginia youth program, he now rides only on weekends. By associating with the police, he says, he has learned not only the basics of police work, but also the importance of self-discipline.
By Fleming's own account, he grew up spoiled, the pet of a self-indulgent great-grandmother who raised him from infancy. At age 15, trouble struck. He was arrested and charged with throwing a brick at a woman. He says the arrest was a mistake and the charges were dropped when the victim failed to identify him in a police lineup.
"It scared the hell out of me," he said of the incident. "That's what changed my whole attitude."
An officer urged him to join the police department's National Association of Law Enforcement Explorers Club, an offshoot of the national scouting program. The club provides counseling, social activities and training in police work for boys and girls aged 13 to 18, many of whom are pre-delinquents, kids with "nervous energy," says officer Cedric Wormley, coordinator of the program.
On occasion, the group would take ride-along tours for a closeup look at the streets and to learn that officers do more "than just lock up people," Wormley said. "Fleming is unique in the number of ride-along programs he has gone on." Fleming left the Explorers after a few months, but continued the rides.
Citizen ride-along programs also are conducted by police departments in suburban jurisdictions, and a few local colleges include the tours in their criminal justice curriculum. Youths under 18 must obtain parental consent. Officers say Fleming appears to hold the record for the number of rides taken in this area.
Most of Fleming's tours are in his old neighborhood around 18th and California streets NW., a sloping, working-class area of faded brownstones and gritty food and liquor stores shadowed by embassies and luxury hotels. He said youths there had few role models. He had two, the street punks and the police. He chose the police.
"I'm 18 now. Too many people would say that's no big deal," he says softly. "I've been through a lot. I've seen things."
Walking by a convenience store one night, he said, he saw a friend who worked there get shot during a holdup. That friend lived.
Another friend who became a street gangster did not. He was killed by street hoods. Still another, a onetime honor-roll student and a close buddy, "got strung out on drugs." Flemings shakes his head, scattering the images.
"Pathetic, man," he says. "If I'd stayed hanging out with them I would probably be in the same situation."
Most of his old buddies "have change for the worse," he says sadly.
Wormley knows the pattern. For some inner-city youths, Wormley said, clubs such as the Explorers, with their big-brother counselors, are the only positive influence the youths have.
"They're either in a program or they're in the streets," Wormley points out.
At the stationhouse, Fleming is viewed as a mascot, a likable "pest."
"He wants to be the police a little too early," said officer Winston Starke, one of Fleming's many supporters. Officers say that on occasion Fleming has assisted them during his ride-alongs. In one case, Fleming said, the suspect youth helped chase a drug suspect through an alley, while in another he radioed a "10-33" code to denote that a police officer was in trouble when a mob scene erupted unexpectedly at 14th and P streets NW as the officer tried to make an arrest.
"I look forward to having him along," said officer Tom Yates. "Even in the face of adversity [from peers], he has a really good, positive attitude. There's a lot of peer pressure there [against] riding with the police. Where he comes from, the police generally aren't the people you want to be around."
Some officers, such as Alvin Johnson, affectionately regard the teen-ager as a stepson.
"We all kind of look at Richard as the stepchild of the precinct," Johnson said. "A couple of times he got in with people he shouldn't have. Then all his stepdaddies had to get him in a corner one night and beat his butt. He don't go out with that disco, boogey-down crowd anymore."
Rose Alexander, the youth's great-grandmother and guardian, said she has been grateful for the big-brother friendships provided by the officers.
"Most all of them know him," she said. "When he was working down there and would finish late, they would come along home with him. He looked up to them. CAPTION:
Picture, Richard Fleming, with Officer Tom Yates By Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post