Article by Danielle Lerner; Courier Journal
Local kids looking to pad their reputations on the basketball court will soon be able to compete for the ultimate bragging rights — playing against Louisville Metro Police officers.
The new Community Policing Unit, a collaboration effort between LMPD and the Respect Project, aims to combat violence by engaging the city’s youth both on and off the court. The idea is for officers in the 10-member unit, which was introduced Wednesday night at the Chestnut YMCA, to use basketball as a jumping-off point for opening a dialogue between police and local kids.
Local activist Christopher 2X, co-producer of the Hood 2 Hood Movement, said the idea for the Community Policing Unit was prompted about a month ago when residents in the California neighborhood created a petition stating they felt LMPD 2nd Division officers were racially profiling and harassing them. The legal and activist communities and the police department decided something had to be done to bridge the gap between law enforcement and citizens.
The Community Policing Unit was officially born five weeks ago. 2X and other activists created the Respect Project two weeks later to help guide the vision for the unit. Instead of being a traditional patrol unit, the officers will focus on connecting to people on a personal level.
Officer Amber Ross, a member of the newly formed unit, said the officers spent Wednesday at Beecher Terrace in the West end, knocking on doors, handing out cards and asking people to voice their concerns.
“The purpose is trying to engage the community to break the ice and tension that has created a roadblock to having cordial interactions with police within the black community,” 2X said. “It’s letting the unit hear from kids firsthand.”
There have been a record-breaking 118 criminal homicide investigations in Jefferson County in 2016, according to a Courier-Journal count. In those cases, 43 of the victims were 25 years old or younger. Thirty-two suspects identified by police were also 25 or younger.
Young Commercial, 22, is a self-described entrepreneur and musician who lives in Louisville’s South End and was involved in the inception of the Respect Project. He regularly hosts events and parties for local teens, and said “nine out of 10” of the kids involved in deadly violence have come to his events at one point or another. Based on what he hears, Young Commercial said the distrust kids have for law enforcement is extremely strong.
“I know for a fact they don’t like the police,” he said. “They talk to me about it, but they only know how to pick up a gun.”
Young Commercial said many kids pick up these anti-police attitudes at home from their parents. As a whole, he said, parents sometimes drop the ball and don’t pay enough attention to their children’s lives. Young Commercial admitted it can be hard for parents to be vigilant while working one or multiple jobs — but that’s where the Community Policing Unit comes in.
“Police can fill the void of protection,” he said. “Kids don’t feel like they are protected.”
Ross said she is aware of that fear, but she believes honest discussion can help overcome it.
“A lot of the kids are scared of us,” Ross said. “But when I go and talk to these kids it’s all about communication. I come from where they come from. I tell them, ‘Hey just because I wear a badge doesn’t make me any different than you. I ask them, ‘What’s hurting you? What’s important to you? Who’s there for you?’ Once you talk to kids on that type of level they know I do care. At that point in time, I’m not Officer Ross to them, I’m Amber to them.”
Ross said the Community Policing Unit received a three-year grant to keep operations up and running, and is confident the community will see results. And, she added, the basketball side of things is an added bonus.
“I absolutely love it,” she said. “I scored two baskets on the kids. And I’m female and short and they’re like, ‘Oh she scored on you!’ It was fun and I enjoyed it and I can’t wait.”
Young Commercial said he thinks once a few kids start interacting with the Community Policing Unit, the domino effect will begin.
“Kids’ mouths are big,” he said. “If they see, ‘Oh, this cop ain’t that bad,’ then they start saying, ‘Yeah, he’s pretty dope, he’s cool,’ and word spreads.”
As dedicated and enthusiastic members of the Respect Project and LMPD are about the unit, Ross said, its success will depend on collecting feedback from the community.
“Let us know how we can help make things better,” Ross said. “Let us know when we are failing what we can do to make it right. At the end of the day we want to do everything we can to make Louisville, Kentucky better.”
Reporter Danielle Lerner can be reached at [email protected] or 502-582-4042.