Despite the .38-caliber revolvers strapped to their hips, there is something disarming about five D.C. police officers and a U.S. Secret Serviceman asking an audience to clap its hands and chant along:
"Oooh, La-La. Oooh, La-La. I can feel it; I can feel it in my bones.
"(Say what?!) I can feel it 'cause the po-lice are getting it on.
If that isn't enough to convince the disbelieving that there's more than one kind of police beat, the Officer Friendly Side By Side Band plugs in its electric guitars, rolls out the piano and the drums, picks up the horns and launches into such R&B and funk standards as "Whip It" and "Super Freak."
Over the years, the Side By Side Band has played gigs in just about every elementary and junior high school in Washington, as well as in larger arenas such as Carter Barron Amphitheater and Presidential Park.
The band members are assigned to the D.C. police Community Relations Division, and their primary duty is to act out their fantasies of rock-star, punk/funk, rhythm-and-blues fame, three times a week. In a sense, they are indeed stars -- local celebrities in short-sleeved police blues.
During a recent appearance at a city-sponsored rally against drug and alcohol abuse, the Side By Side Band elicited toe-taps from the audience of about 700 young people as they went from a splashy rendition of the O'Jays' "You're My Favorite Person" to a finale that ordered the crowd to "get mellow."
On stage there seems to be little, except for the guns and badges, that distinguishes the band from the real thing. It has a semislick, professional look and sound. Sgt. Robert E. Gross could be a Barry White or a Larry Graham when he sheds his bass guitar and begins caressing a love ballad with his rich voice, whipping the microphone cord as he strolls across the front of the stage and pausing dramatically on an occasional "baby, baby . . . oh baby."
The audience loves it, and Gross, who is introduced on stage as the "black prince of the Metro police department," smiles to himself, his sparkling dark eyes hidden behind regulation shades.
"I wanted to be a musician more than I wanted to be a policeman," he says. He got his chance about 12 years ago, when the police brass discovered that the new recruit directing traffic at North Capitol and I streets played a mean bass guitar. They snatched Gross off the streets, and he's been with Side By Side ever since.
When people hear the band for the first time, the reaction is nearly always the same: a stripping of mental gears.
"I didn't know police here were so diversified," said Jennifer Gatlin, 27, a tourist who took pictures of the band's recent performance in Presidential Park for the folks back home in Jackson, Miss.
"A friend of mine is married to a policeman in Jackson," she said. "I want him to see what the police out here are up to."
"They create a positive image, a rapport with young people , by using the vehicle of today's contemporary music," said Lt. Daniel Kerr, assistant director of the community relations department, who has a master's degree in music. "They are very effective in the schools, and they have made us, justifiably, very proud of what they have accomplished."
Members of the band are attached to a special unit called Officer Friendly, a public relations and educational program aimed at school-aged children. When they are not performing, the band members visit classrooms to give lectures and show films about traffic safety and the like. They seldom do routine police work. Jitters about possible transfer out of the unit replace show biz pressures and anxieties.
"The kids come to relate to us in a very good way," said tenor and alto saxophonist Officer William E. (Dance Machine) Hickman, as he ran his hand through his thick brown locks, much as a star might strike a pose for an album cover. "As musicians, though, people remember you. I live in Maryland, and people in their 20s come up to me and tell me they remember when I played in their school." At 40, Hickman is the oldest member of the band.
Lead guitarist Jim Morris, 32, says he's often stopped to give autographs. "It's gratifying to me to go into a McDonalds and kids ask you if you play with the Side By Side Band. The music makes an impression."
Gross, the "black prince," said the band has evolved over the years. Back in the 1940s the Metropolitan Police Department wanted a band, so after some urging Congress passed legislation that allowed members of the D.C. police and fire departments, U.S. Park Police and the U.S. Secret Service to form one, he said.
The band's early repertoire was crammed with flag-waving marches and its ranks swelled to more than two dozen. The band would visit public schools and play side by side with student musicians, thus the name.
Gross, 30, said the band didn't change much until about 1970 when students began to demand music a little more to their liking. Budget cuts also began to whittle the big band into a combo.
Enter James (Scotty) Scott, a 33-year-old Secret Service officer who sings, plays piano, synthesizer, trombone and trumpet, and owns a small recording studio in District Heights. In 1972, Scott arranged Issac Hayes' "Shaft" for the band, complete with wah-wah guitar. The song became the band's first big hit.
Soon Scott was arranging and playing Top 20 material for the Side By Side Band and in 1974 he was transferred to the Officer Friendly program. He started spending so much time with the band that when he goes back to cruising the embassy beat once a week, his fellow officers call him "Sunday Night."
Scott laughs about it, and, like his fellow band members, counts himself lucky to earn a living doing something he enjoys so much: "It's a natural high."