Watts Bears Practice
The LAPD coached Watts Bears is giving young boys an alternative to gang life.
There are several layers to youth football. Learning the fundamentals of the game; building a strong work ethic to achieve a goal; working as part of a team instead of being an individual; learning how to deal with the ups and downs of winning and losing.
For the Watts Bears, the layers go well beyond the football field. The Los Angeles Police Department’s Community Safety Partnership has partnered with the Housing Authority to field a team of boys from the Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts, and Jordan Downs housing projects. There have been several youth football teams in Watts and the surrounding areas, but none like this one.
This team, which debuted last year, is coached by LAPD police officers who have the goals of using sports “as a vehicle to introduce and reinforce the concept of strong character, positive values, personal responsibility and academic excellence.”
“The program has a mentorship component where we work with kids in the community to play football,” Officer Keith Mott said. “A part of the requirement for them to play is that we get their grades and behavior work from school. If the child is having problems at school, then they have to attend tutoring, also classes in anger management if they want to continue to stay in the program.”
Several of the players in this program do not have fathers in their household. Without a male role model on a daily basis, many of these boys have behavior issues in their neighborhoods, at home, and in the classroom, which can lead to gang involvement.
“We are being mentors to these kids who do not have a male role model in their lives,” Mott said. “They get to see police officers outside of policing. They see us as coaches, as regular people, and they see that we are just as human as anybody else. We’re somebody that they can talk to and somebody that they can look up to.”
It is important for the LAPD to show these kids, and the community at large, that they are there to serve.
“We built relationships with members of the community, and they have realized that we are there to help them,” Mott said. “It’s not like the old LAPD that is just looking to arrest people. As we have built relationships, people are letting us know when shooting are occurring, or before gang activity happens, we’re getting phone calls, which allows us to be more proactive. We talk to people, so they begin to trust us. So the word has gotten out to gang members who are not from that area that the LAPD is in this area, the LAPD is not playing, do not come into this area causing problems, because we will deal with you.”
The LAPD’s new interaction with the community has produced great results. Before their partnership with the housing authority there were 86 homicides over a three year period in the three housing projects. But over the past year and a half there have been none.
“At one time the people in the housing development did not trust the LAPD, and the LAPD had an issue with them,” Mott said. "But through this program, and the different training that we have going on, our very positive relationships with kids and with families, we’ve given these kids an alternative to gang life. We’re able to talk to the kids about their school work, when they’re not doing well we can tell their parents, and sometimes we just deal with them like they’re our own children. Because of those relationships, the community sees that we are here to protect, we are here to serve, and we are not hear to harass.”
This partnership has helped curtail gang activity and keep young kids from joining. When a problem child is identified, that child is mentored and receives counseling. The LAPD works with the parents and the local schools to ensure that the kids are staying on the right track.
“The teachers noticed a change in the attitudes of the children," Mott said. "The fact that we were working with the school and their grades, and the kids knew that, they worked harder because they wanted to stay on the team.”
Last year 45 players came out to play, and according to Mott, they did not have any discipline or an understanding of a structured environment. Some of the kids quit because they did not like the idea of being told what to do, and the coaches faced challenges that they had to iron out from day one.
“The biggest challenge was teaching the kids discipline and the concept of a team sport, understanding rules, and understanding that this is not a one man team," Mott said. "And a big thing was respect. A lot of them would talk back to the coaches.”
For the players that stayed, they saw a great improvement in work ethic, social skills, and they became better students in the classroom.
Football is what brought these kids to this program, but they are here for more than just playing a sport.
“This program is not just in football, but in leadership," Mott said. "Speaking abilities and education. And hopefully that kid will look to college.”
While many black children in South Los Angeles have rare opportunities to leave their area, the Watts Bears traveled to San Diego and Nevada for games.
This program has also created bonds between kids who would not have normally come together, and would have been potential gang rivals. There were some players who were family members, but never interacted because they live in rival gang areas. On this team it is not about which neighborhood that they are from, and they have learned to work together.
Outside of football, the LAPD has taken the kids sailing, fishing, and they took a trip to the Debbie Allen dance studio for lessons. The LAPD has also been involved with the First Tee Golf program, the Girl Scouts, they are looking to partner with the Boy Scouts, and they have coached a track team.
Through this football team, and other partnerships, many kids are seeing a different path, one that does not lead towards gangs.