Beat Cops

Kids, this is Yanni. Turn OFF the boom box and come out with your hands up.

At 8 p.m. one Friday every month, it is Officer Dean Abeyta's solemn duty to administer a form of juvenile justice that has been called everything from "groundbreaking" to "cruel and unusual." Entering the single courtroom of the Fort Lupton municipal building, he sets up rows of chairs, drags a desk in front of the chairs and places on the desk a cheap boom box holding a cassette mix tape. Then he waits for his perpetrators -- mostly teenage boys and the occasional teenage girl, all of whom have been arrested for violating Fort Lupton's strict noise ordinance with their bass-booming car stereos.

This is seriously unlawful behavior in these parts, and Abeyta has developed rules for the Fort Lupton Music Immersion program that match the severity of the crime.

"Number one," Abeyta recites, "no gum. Number two, no smiling. Well, no mocking, you know, like this was a big joke. Also no yawning, sleeping or bathroom breaks. And you gotta sit up straight."

Doing time, keeping time: Judge Paul Sacco and Officer Dean Abeyta run the Fort Lupton Music Immersion program.
Anthony Camera
Doing time, keeping time: Judge Paul Sacco and Officer Dean Abeyta run the Fort Lupton Music Immersion program.

After giving the rules, he turns on the tape, letting it run for one hour. "They hate it," he says, "which is good. The only problem is that I have to listen to it, too."

And that is a problem. Recent selections on the Music Immersion mix tape include:

The Barney Theme ("I love you/ You love me...")

Several Yanni selections

Riders of the Purple Sage in a yodeling number chosen deliberately because the Western combo is singing off-key

John Denver's "Sunshine on My Shoulder"

Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey"

Dean Martin's "Cryin' Time"

A bit of Al Jolson

An opera duet featuring Placido Domingo and Glenn Close

"Plus a lot of that old-time, back-in-the-day music," Abeyta recalls. "Bach, Beethoven and that 1930s stuff. The kids really don't like it. They walk out of the Immersion pissed off."

But, he adds, they do not express their annoyance by playing their music loudly as they drive away. "They know better now," he says, with a sigh of deep satisfaction. "This program works."

It was Fort Lupton's part-time judge, Paul Sacco, who first came up with the idea of showing, rather than telling, perpetrators that being forced to listen to someone else's music can be irritating. He debuted the program a little more than a year ago, and is still giddy over its success.

"We're just trying to put the 'fun' back in 'dysfunctional,'" he quips. "I was particularly proud of having Jim Nabors on the original tape, singing 'How Great Thou Art,' but I took it off after a while, because it was religious in content."

"I get calls from all over the world requesting songs," adds Fort Lupton court clerk Penny Verhoeff. "A lot ask for John Tesh. One person suggested I play 'It's a Small World After All' for an hour, but I didn't think our bailiff could take it."

"I couldn't," Officer Abeyta confirms.

Discussions of bad music and its good effect on bad kids are commonplace during the two mornings each week when Judge Sacco shows up to arraign scofflaws. His cohorts in the Fort Lupton justice system are used to such talk -- and to media interest in the Music Immersion program. In the past year, the Fort Lupton municipal building has hosted, among others, Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, VH1, the BBC, National Public Radio and the Daily Show.

"I loved that one," Abeyta remembers. "They staged an old lady driving through town playing really loud polka music, and they filmed me pulling her over on camera."

"People have heard about this all over the world," Sacco says. "What's interesting is that only two comments were negative. One person thought the program is humiliating to kids. I disagree. Another thought it would discourage kids from liking opera, which, if you could hear that Glenn Close cut, might be true. It's bizarre to me that this program is so well-liked. For a while there, in the beginning, I really thought they would fire me. But then, I do my best work when I'm not afraid to get fired."

Not only does Sacco maintain a business law office in Greeley, he has extensive real estate investments, so his pay from the Fort Lupton legal system means relatively little. Back in 1993, he decided to take on the judgeship not for money, but partly out of a desire to be a public servant and mostly because he was haunted by more than a hundred cases of child abuse and neglect he'd worked on early in his law career. A majority of Fort Lupton arraignments involve juveniles, and Sacco likes that -- as a father of three, he'd become concerned, in a general way, with the state of American children.

He had no idea how specific his concern would become.

"In July '97, the city council passed a noise ordinance," Sacco recalls. "There had been a lot of complaints about car sound systems, and the ordinance was not uncommon, although it is strict."

"Yeah, if I can hear your boom 25 feet away, I can cite you," Abeyta says.

"In Greeley, it's a hundred feet," Sacco says. "Anyway, as we began enforcing, we learned that these guys have some serious sound equipment. It makes a LOT of noise, and starting in December '98, I was up here hearing arraignments. Basically, I was giving these kids a $90 fine, which, with court costs, comes to more than $100. It didn't feel right to me. My gut feeling was that music is a good thing and that the fine was a little harsh. Also, it didn't fit the crime, really. And I began thinking it really is a manners thing. For the most part, I like the kids and I like their music."

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