In my previous post, I wrote about the “Ferguson Effect” and the challenges it poses to law enforcement nationwide. (see previous post here). We know that in communities where police officers are disconnected from the citizens, crime typically goes up and the quality of life for those citizens goes down. So how do we better engage our citizens in an era of de-policing? My answer; one citizen at a time. Here’s an example.
It was around 1996 and I was working an extra duty assignment in a housing project known as Pine Chapel. Pine Chapel was a typical housing project, in that it had a high crime rate (drugs, robberies, shootings) but it also had a lot of really good people just trying to live their lives. At the center of Pine Chapel was a recreation center, where kids gathered to do homework, play games, and play basketball. One afternoon, I was hanging out at the community center watching teens shoot hoops. As I watched, one of the kids passed a basketball in my direction, which I caught and quickly passed back. Basketball was not my game. Never was; never has been; and never will be. It’s hard to imagine anyone being worse at basketball than me. For whatever reason, the kid immediately passed the ball back to me and started chiding me to take a shot. I refused. No reason to embarrass myself in front of the whole community center right? This went on for a little while and I realized there was no way to avoid it. I was going to have to take a shot.
With everyone watching, I grabbed the basketball, attempted to line up a shot, dribbled it a couple times, and threw the ball in the general direction of the backboard. The result? A complete “air ball”. Not even close to the backboard. To my credit, I was wearing a full uniform and body armor, which must have negatively affected my shooting ability, right? As you can imagine, there were quite a few snickers and some outright laughter. One kid in particular, a kid named Donate, gave me a particularly hard time. The ball came back to me, I shot it again, with the same abysmal results. This went on for a few minutes, until I either got a call on the radio (or made up a call) and found an excuse to leave. I had enough embarrassment for one day.
Although I didn’t work Pine Chapel on a regular basis, when I did, I’d occasionally run into Dontae. He was a pretty cool kid and he generally looked for an opportunity to talk with the officers who worked the area. One day, I was talking to him and he asked me a question that surprised me. He asked “what do I have to do to become a police officer?”. Not a typical question from a 13-year-old kid living in the projects. Rather than blow him off, I told him a good start would be the law enforcement explorer program. At the time, I was the head advisor for our program and I explained what it was about and how he could get involved. I told Dontae to find me when he turned 14 and I’d get him signed up. A few months later, he found me, told me he turned 14, and he was ready to join the explorers. We signed him up right after that.
Over the next four years, Dontae excelled at being an explorer. If we needed volunteers at the academy, he was there. If we needed help on a service project, he was there. He had a passion for learning about traffic stops, arrest techniques, firearms, and anything else we were willing to teach him. Dontae quickly progressed through the ranks, eventually becoming the post commander and achieving the highest rank of Captain. During this time, Donate and I developed a close friendship. We came from very different places and we were far apart in age, but we had an admiration for each other that was profound. During that time, I got married, and Dontae stood beside me as one of my groomsman. When he graduated high school, I was honored to be offered one of the limited “family” tickets for graduation. I learned as much from him as he ever learned from me. Not long after graduation, I accepted a new job in Georgia and moved away, but it never changed my admiration for him.
Is our story unique? Probably not. I know police officers all over the country are building relationships with kids like Dontae, one citizen at a time. But are we doing enough? In an era where de-policing is becoming more common (understandably so), what can we do to have more stories like the one I just shared? I have a few thoughts I’d like to share with you over the upcoming blogs. Do I have all the answers? Of course not. Have I seen some of these things work? You bet. I look forward to sharing some ideas and hearing your feedback over the coming weeks.
Thanks for reading,