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Keeping It On the Court

Public-housing police officers are reaching neighborhood youth through basketball.

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Memphis Man II Man
Police officers have long sought to become more than just patrolmen in the neighborhoods where they work. Through community involvement and outreach programs, many officers seek opportunities to build trust with residents.

With 17 years of policing between them, officers Michael Spearman and Jimmy Warren of the Public Housing COACT Unit are reaching out to the youth of 22 public housing developments.

As part of their community involvement, the officers have sponsored and helped coach several youth-oriented programs -- most importantly, basketball teams for boys in grades six through nine, including this year's 8th/9th-grade standout team, Memphis Man II Man.

In June, the team was invited to a National Amateur Athletic Union invitational tournament in Newton, Kansas. The team posted an impressive record, with nine wins and one semifinal loss. But the boys scored off the court as well. During their stay on the campus of Tabor College in Hillsboro, they got a chance to learn about life outside their neighborhood.

"That was a good learning experience for the guys. For some of them, that was their first time going out of town that far," says Spearman. "It really boosted their morale for wanting to attend college, as opposed to always talking about going straight to the NBA. For those 13 guys, it really changed their focus."

"The exposure that we're giving them now will have a lasting impression on them. The premise of this trip was to let them be exposed to life outside the projects and see the other side and interact with other cultures," says Warren.

But work with the team didn't begin -- and doesn't end -- with this tournament. Warren started working with neighborhood youngsters 11 years ago in the LeMoyne Gardens Housing Development. "We saw a need to get involved with the kids there," says Warren. "And as we started communicating with them, we realized that a great way to reach them was through basketball."

With help from Coach Harold Smith, Vance Middle School assistant principal, the officers have built basketball teams that compete with area-wide Police Athletic League teams.

In addition to ensuring that the boys are athletically prepared, the mentors hold the players academically accountable; they are required to maintain a 2.0 GPA. "We also keep up with [school] attendance, because in the real world, attendance is key. If you can go to school, you can go to work," says Spearman.

"Community policing is the key to keeping crime out," Spearman adds. Their diligence seems to be working. Public-housing crime statistics have been reduced.

But most important, players and parents say, are the changes that the program has made in their lives.

"I spend at least three hours a day at this gym," says Marvin Webb. "The coaches have taught me how to be a man and respect myself, my parents, and other people." Webb's play in the Memphis Man II Man program has earned him a scholarship to Christian Brothers High School.

Gerald Sprattlin acknowledges the program's positive influences on his son Gerald Jr. and on himself. "Gerald Jr.'s life has changed. [The coaches] have grabbed hold of him and made him change. We're from Chicago, from a neighborhood where flying bullets and shootouts were common," says Sprattlin. "Gerald's maturity has totally increased, and my parenting skills have gotten better."

The officers' next trip is later this month, when they take the 6th/7th-grade team to a St. Louis tournament. They also plan to expand the program to include a girls' team coached by female officers in the unit.

"I'm just a villager, not the chief, and I want the village to prosper," says Smith. "And in order to do that we've got to raise strong warriors."

The Memphis Police Department implemented the Public Housing COACT Unit in July 1996. The unit, which is housed in the LeMoyne-Owen section of the city, is staffed by 20 patrol officers, two lieutenants, and one major.

Since the program's start, the unit has performed several community-service projects, including free counseling for housing residents. "The goal [of the unit] is to change the public-housing stigma and perception," says Major Carolyn Jackson.

With programs like Memphis Man II Man, the perception is changing everyday.

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