Leiden Law Blog

Breaking Barriers: Cops, Community, and Basketball

Breaking Barriers: Cops, Community, and Basketball

The past few years have not been the best for police image in America. In the wake of Ferguson, the shootings that followed, enhanced surveillance by the use of cell phone cameras, and increased implementation of police body cameras, cops are under more public scrutiny than ever. With a rise in awareness of police misconduct it becomes extremely difficult to try to salvage the reputation that police officers are "good guys" who are just trying to "protect and serve" their communities.

Fatal shootings and rogue racism are not isolated incidents and run deep in America's historical veins. In turn, the public has lost a great sense of trust in police which calls for comprehensive reform. In the strained relationship between police and their community communication is not easy, and at times even possible, due to mutual mistrust and scepticism.

But despite this all basketball games have brought cops and kids together in an attempt to slowly rebuild a sense of trust and foster community engagement. As Loftus asserts, in order to redefine the police as non-dominant figure, "wider social change" must take place. These changes must start collectively and incrementally at a small scale. Thus basketball opens the chance for dialogue and allows for citizens and youth to finally see cops in a different light. HuffPo says it best, "Life is better when cops can shoot hoops instead of bullets."

Community and context

About 20 years ago, in 1994, the U.S. was propelled by President Clinton's "Violent Crime Control Act" to amp up policing and lock-up more offenders. But, instead of driven by fact, it was supported by the punitive sentiment that resonated with society. This only fueled the fire of America's growing love affair with mass incarceration.

Unfortunately, in lieu of this movement, social and preventative programs like Midnight Basketball, which caused sharp declines in property crime, were swept aside. As conservatives opted for a more harsh and swift agenda, basketball at midnight was criticised as "coddling criminals" or "paying crackheads to play basketball." But ironically, in 2015, Republican governors are now praising such approaches to basketball as "Right on Crime." How the tables have turned.

In an era of less punitive reform, more recent efforts have shifted towards a focus on community policing and procedural justice as brought forth by Tyler: In fostering perceptions of police legitimacy, police must exercise fairness to ensure citizen cooperation. Citizens must share reciprocated respect and involvement in the dispute resolution process thus creating a sense of trust in the police.

But creating the social bridge for communication between police and the community is not an easy task. In findings by Gau and Brunson, sentiments towards police are often lukewarm whereby the majority of respondents felt police were "not polite" and "almost never easy to talk to." Prior incidents of racial profiling have greatly destroyed public trust in police and created generalised attitudes towards police as the "enemy." But, in doing so, this hinders opportunities for well-intentioned, good-natured officers to reach out to their community without fearing backlash.

The case for basketball

In July 2014 in Kansas City, Missouri, police were caught on camera — playing a pickup game of basketball with locals kids. This is not the news we often see dominating the media coverage of police conduct. This basketball game is also not a rare incident of police exercising genuine care for and involvement in their communities. It happens often, in different respects, in many locations, but tends to be lesser known to the public eye.

But according to U.S. public sentiment, in a Pew survey, there is a sense of pessimism as to whether police will improve community relations, with only 22% confidence among African Americans and about 50% of whites. Although trust may not be quickly reestablished formally with police on the beat, perhaps it can be better rekindled informally on the basketball court.

Unlike midnight basketball which had the single goal of reducing crime, basketball games between cops and citizens aims to strengthen cop and youth ties and reduce crime. In Dallas, Texas, an initiative called "Together We Ball," was founded for the above purpose. Although it was noted that "Basketball isn't the answer," Police Sergeant Warren Mitchell affirms "We would rather have a community that trusts its department than have even the lowest crime rate in the country."

Basketball opts for a more playful approach to showing how police care for their communities. From New York, to Florida, to Wisconsin, basketball programmes (whether organised, pickup, or teams coached by officers) are popping up all over the nation. Organisations like PAL (Police Athletic / Activities League) operate as a platform for youth and sport programmes sponsored by district Sheriff departments. 

As an anecdote, my father, Nicholas Ekovich, was a police officer. He served 30 years with Huntington Beach Police in California, and died as a consequence of injuries related to an on-duty shooting. When I was nine years old he volunteered his time off-duty to coach a basketball team. We were the "Lakers," I was the only girl on the team, and to my teammates and their parents my dad was not called a "cop," he was "coach." [Photo featured above]

Changing the identity from cops to trustworthy members of the community is a step-by-step approach. It begins with a gradual identity shift of police assuming more approachable roles like a coach or mentor to local youth who are most at risk for crime. In sum, "community-centered policing," does not always have to imply "policing" as a verb or action inferring control and surveillance. But instead can, and should, advocate for police as individuals investing their time in giving back to their communities to understand those they are trying to police. 

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