LOS ANGELES – Watts is a neighborhood in South Los Angeles that is still scarred from brutal anti-police riots in the 60’s and 90’s. The ball diamonds and football fields are not what you’d find in suburban areas.
The Watts Bears aren’t just preparing for practice, reported Will Carr, but every snap, pass, and touchdown is trying to fortify the lack of trust between the community and members of law enforcement.
“To try to change that and change the community you have to get your hands dirty and working with kids who are 9 to 12 so that when they’re 15, 16, 17, 18 that relationship that they have with law enforcement is completely different,” Officer James Holliman, a Watts Bears’ coach, said.
The team’s four coaches all work for LAPD, and patrol Watts when they are on duty. Their goal is to keep the kids on the field and off the street as they serve as more than coaches, but mentors according to the Fox report.
“Rather than just arresting and moving on to the next problem, we’re preventing a problem before it even starts,” Officer Greg Goosby said. “Some of the kids don’t have father figures at home so we’ve become that, so we’re another voice or ear to listen to them.”
To several players, the cops have become family. “They’re like another dad; they’re like more parents for us. They give us good advice,” Jahiem “Big J” Gillett said.
Gillett’s friend and teammate, Quan’nell “Duda” McKissic, shares the same faith in his coaches, although he admits he didn’t always trust law enforcement.
“I didn’t like the police, I didn’t want to have nothing to do with them,” McKissic said, explaining his mindset before he joined the Bears.
“My coaches fixed my life because before I started playing for them I was basically on the wrong track just doing bad stuff and now it’s just getting my grades better and being more respectful to my mom,” McKissic says. “All cops are not bad and you should just respect the police and they’ll give you respect back.”
Not surprisingly, it’s working. The three housing developments involved in the Community Safety Partnership Program, which sponsor the Bears, have seen a 50 percent reduction in homicides since the football team hit the field in 2011 according to Carr’s research. This year, violent crime is up across Los Angeles but has dropped in Watts.
The program has become so successful; Officers are now branching out and filling in at father/daughter dances, tutoring, and even going to parent-teacher conferences.
“The fact is they really look up to their coaches and they want to be like them when they get older,” Kenya Brooks, whose son plays on the team, said.
As community and police tensions boil across the country, both the officers and parents believe if a program like the Bears can work in Watts, it can work anywhere.
“Football is the carrot, but we’re really using that to mentor and be a focal point in these kids’ lives where we’re helping them do better things in their lives,” Officer Holliman said.