Basketball and Life Skills Brings Police and Community Together

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Lieutenant Shawn Dace watched more than 20 men warm up for their St. Louis NITES Basketball League game at Tandy Park Recreational Center. He greeted two late arrivals with a quick handshake, before telling them to get out on the court with their team.

"We provide a safe environment for these guys to come in and not worry about beefs and whatever is going on out in the streets," Dace said. "We get a plethora of different personalities- guys with criminal records, guys fresh out of the penitentiary, and guys in college. The guys in college mentor some of these guys who are in the streets, and the guys in the streets mentor the guys in college and tell them to keep doing what they are doing. It goes both ways."

The St. Louis NITES Basketball League is a partnership between ARCHS, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, St. Louis Department of Parks, Recreation, and Forestry, and Fathers' Support Center. Approximately 250 men between the ages of 18-35 form 10 teams for an 11-week basketball league. Police officers coach the teams in the league.

To play in the league, participants are required to take six life skills classes coordinated by Fathers' Support Center, which teach the young men about topics ranging from health and fitness, to financial literacy, to STD prevention, to fatherhood responsibilities.

"The life skills class is the lifeblood of this program," Dace said. "These guys can play basketball almost anywhere, but the real product they leave with is what they get from life skills, because they can use and apply what they learn anywhere. "

Dace said the program also gives the opportunity for the police department and young men in the community to bond in a way that would not be possible under normal circumstances.

"Often times, the only interaction many of these guys have with police officers is when they are locking them up, locking a family member up, locking a friend up, so this provides an alternate positive interaction," Dace said. "It's a great tool for us to use to bond with the community and help get the community on your side."

Errol Isom, who lives in a local neighborhood near Tandy Park, said the program brings participants close together, as well as with local police.

"I've gotten to play with guys from a neighborhood that I don't get along with. But, I've gotten to know them well in here, and we can put aside everything that's going on out there and come together in here," Isom said. "Before coming here, I had a negative perception about the police, but know I'm getting to now them better and learning that they care about us, which is making me see them in a different light."

Javar Holman didn't have issues with police before the program, because his father is in law enforcement, but he does learn a lot from the program and from the life skills classes.

"It is teaching discipline. You have to show up on time. You have to wear a uniform. You have to go to life skills," Holman said. "This lets guys see that there are good cops out there that care about their well-being."