Taking on a musical beat

Band: Baltimore County police officers get the message out about the dangers of alcohol and guns to pupils through music and skits.

October 30, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

The school auditorium is crowded, ready for a program about gun safety, child abuse and the danger of strangers. But when the spotlight hits the stage, the band -- a group of police officers -- launches into a near-perfect rendition of the old Monkees' song, "I'm a Believer."

Blue-and-white police lights flash from the top of amplifiers the size of small closets. More than one pupil looks inquisitively at a teacher, as if police aren't allowed to be this fun or this loud.

Harold Williams is singing like a man who never had to write an overnight report. Carl Lindhorst is banging away on drums. And Mark Steindler, the saxophonist, provides backup to his fellow officers -- vocally.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has his band. Baltimore County police have theirs.

Calling themselves the Heat -- "heat" was slang for police before "5-0" -- the five-man band formed in the late 1980s. But while most rock stars of that era have fallen off the Top 10 charts, the Heat is as popular as ever. They mix musical numbers with lessons about safety that pupils direct by telling the officers what they should do to avoid the dangers of guns, beer and strangers.

The band doesn't need an agent. School principals are lined up to book them.

And the pupils? "They love it. They're mesmerized," said Dott Schisler, assistant principal at Warren Elementary in Cockeysville.

Although the band mostly sticks with the elementary school circuit, they occasionally play at a Police Athletic League event or other community functions.

This year, they performed for a U.S. Justice Department conference.

"We can never get to all the places we're asked to play," said Cpl. Scott Canter, who serves as the band's manager.

So many cafeterias, so little time.

"I thought they were great," said Lauren Schneider, 10, after a recent Heat performance at Warren Elementary. "I like live music. I like acting. They have a sense of humor. This was the best assembly we've had."

The band, which specializes in popular tunes from the 1960s and 1970s, also plays an original tune called "Guns Ain't Kids Stuff."

Most of their skits star Williams and Steindler, who plays a creepy middle-aged man in one scenario about confrontations with strangers and then plays a 9-year-old in the next skit. In another, the 51-year-old officer skateboards around the cafeteria, which elementary school pupils find uproariously funny.

They also get the point: Don't play with guns, don't drink beer, don't walk away with strangers.

"It reinforces everything the DARE officers are teaching in the schools," said Officer Laura Phelps, who is part-host, part-bouncer.

When things get rowdy, it is Phelps who quiets the room, telling the children no one on stage will sing or act until they're listening. It works every time.

The founding members of the Heat band have since retired, but the group continues, with officers volunteering -- and auditioning -- for this assignment. Lead guitarist David Claridge patrols the North Point precinct and Williams works patrol in Woodlawn. Steindler is an instructor at the county police academy.

On performance days, though, the officers live a little like rock 'n' roll stars, dealing with adoring young fans, signing autographs and dashing from one gig to the next.

Steindler, who has played in the band for more than 16 years, knows how middle-age rockers must feel. "At the end of the day, I'm beat," he says, laughing.

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