In the shadow of the Watts Towers sits the practice field of Locke High School. For the young men in the orange and black Watts Bears uniforms, the shrill sound of a coach’s whistle takes the place of thoughts of uncertainty and hazards that exists in the surrounding community.
On this year’s team, 24 of the 27 athletes have never played football.
The fact that the majority of players have never participated in organized sports is only half of the story behind this unique program. Ranging from ages 8 to 13 years old the program was created in 2011, when the LAPD and LA Housing Authority launched the Community Safety Partnership (CSP).
One of the goals of the football program is to take kids out of the gang culture of the streets and unite them on the field.
Enter Officers Grant Goosby, Zarren Thompson and Cesar Rivera. They’re all part of Operation Progress, a program which pairs students in Watts with LAPD mentors. The students are then placed in schools with 100 percent high school graduation rates. Those selected are given scholarships to attend the St. Lawrence of Brindisi School in Watts.
Going door-to-door to recruit kids to join the Bear’s football team was difficult at best. The community was highly skeptical of trusting the police. “I thank God they came,” said Melody Culpepper, mother of 7-year-old Malachi Russ, told reporters. “It changed the image that’s been in my head about the police. You hear ‘po-po, po-po coming’ and you know what that means.”
According to Officer Thompson, “Sports bring people together.”
It’s part of community policing, aimed at building neighborhood bonds and reducing gang-related crime. The program is credited with assisting to lower violent crime in the area by 50 percent since its inception. The number of homicides dropped from 79 in the decade before CSP, to just four in previous three years.
Four LAPD officers are the volunteer coaches for three teams comprised of more than 80 young men. Coaches aren’t just teaching the basics of football; they’re also imparting tools to help these young men excel at the game of life.
“It changed my life because it shows me that the LAPD is not bad. It’s just their job to protect the community. It changed my life because it keeps me active and out the gang violence,” said Emorej Bradley, one of the players on the team.
The coaches stress structure, discipline, team spirit, friendship, and positive competition. It’s not unusual for the officers pick the players up from school to practice and return them home. Many of the students don’t have steady transportation.
Some of the funding for the Watts Bears come from partnerships with organizations. There are also academic requirements to be part of the team, such as keeping a 2.5 GPA and attending summer school.
While the team has a steep learning curve and has struggled for wins, their presence has given the community an opportunity for positive change. And that’s the power of sports.