I am a federal officer with the U.S. Courts and a board member of the St. Louis Metropolitan Chapter of NOBLE (National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives). During a NOBLE chapter meeting one of our officers mentioned that she was an adult before she had a positive encounter with a police officer.
In hearing her experience and knowing there were countless individuals with similar experiences, I wanted to establish rapport between local youth and police. I proposed an event for high school athletes and police officers. The goal of the interaction was to create a safe place for meaningful dialogue and fellowship. I wanted to help both groups see each other "beyond the badge" as opposed to the traditional civilian vs. law enforcement approach.
I specifically chose football as the sport to target because it is a source of commonality between the two groups. Additionally, I considered the group would be all-male, which is the group that statistically has the most lethal encounters with law enforcement. I also knew that each participant would be either a current or former football player and/or devoted to sport in some form.
I partnered with my immediate supervisor Charo Prude and Chief Larry Hampton of the University City Police Department to help coordinate the event. I requested participation from several area schools; however, University City High School was the only school that was willing and available to participate. Head Coach Jason Wells ensured his players were prepared for the conversation. I met with them during one of their practices, and they generated a list of questions for the officers.
I also elicited the support from community agencies, the local government and prominent community leaders.
On Friday, July 24, more than 20 University City High School football players arrived to the high school eager to participate. They were pre-screened by St. Charles Titans Youth Football League President John McCaleb to ensure everyone wore a mask, did not display any COVID-19 symptoms and their temperatures were recorded. They were greeted by myself and Officer Charo Prude. Followed by the welcome, Pastor John W. Sykes of Grace Community Bible Church led the group in a prayer.
The first speaker was St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell. He opened by reminiscing on his successes as a former football rival to the school. He talked about his personal experience and journey to his current position. He spoke candidly about the current climate surrounding community-police relations and the importance for their participation in conversation and understanding the other side. He spoke about the need for diversity in law enforcement, corrections and the courts and encouraged them to pursue careers in the same. He invited them to participate in the police simulator training and other programs offered through St. Louis County that would provide perspectives on local government, law enforcement and promote higher education.
Current NFL Hall of Famer and former St. Louis Ram star Pastor Aeneas Williams addressed the players by talking openly about his upbringing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He talked about the struggle of living in an area where brutality and lawlessness was glorified. He spoke about the benefits of staying away from trouble and troublemakers. The players were captivated as he told a story of the weak being led by the strong, the strong being led by the smart and the smart being ruled by the wise. He encouraged the players to fall into the wise category as strength could be easily overpowered or short-lived. He evoked emotion from the audience when he spoke about the associates he lost growing up due to senseless violence. He also elicited hope as he concluded by reassuring the participants that they had unleashed potential and opportunities to cultivate their decisions skills to be successful adults.
Chief Hampton then introduced the four University City officers who participated in the breakout sessions. All of the participating officers, Chief Hampton included. were former collegiate football players. The officers spoke with the two groups about their upbringing, personal experiences, professional experiences and opinions surrounding police work. The players found that they shared more commonalities than differences. Specifically, their love for shoes/sneakers, their passion for football, their love for family and their experiences being profiled and/or discriminated against.
The conservation expanded beyond the predetermined questions and at times consisted of jokes and banter between what the officers experienced and what the players perceived from various law enforcement shows. What was scheduled to be an hour was extended to 90 minutes at the request of the participants. At the conclusion, the players and officers were fist bumping and elbowing each other, adhering to coronavirus protocols.
During the debrief, several players expressed an interest in continuing the conversation with the officers. Chief Hampton vowed to schedule ride-alongs with the officers upon conclusion of the COVID-19 protocols. I also committed to connecting them with Attorney Wesley Bell and registering them for the police simulator.
Future events include a law enforcement day for the participating officers and additional officers to attend a University City High School home football game and a bar-b-que cookout after the game. Building principal, Michael Peoples also vowed to host similar events and committed to making Beyond the Badge an annual football pre-season event.
My goal is to partner with additional high schools and police departments. A lot of good has come from the conversations. The players walked away with the impression, “not all cops are bad.” In particular, one student said, “I know now that I can have a conversation with a cop. I don’t have to run or be afraid.”