Story by Will Maddox | Photos by Rasy Ran
Recent shootings and racial tension often leave the country in paralysis. Tweets about thoughts and prayers, candlelight vigils, and pointless political opportunism seem to be today’s response to racial violence. While these actions can help treat the emotional symptoms of these events, they rarely treat the causes of the disease that seems to be so prevalent.
Of late, Dallas has been celebrated as a city that has made a commitment to community policing and the demilitarization of police interaction, with fewer accounts of abusive police. In the same vein, the Lake Highlands Family YMCA has teamed up with the Dallas Police Department (DPD) to do their best to bring the African American community and the police together and build positive relationships through Midnight Basketball.
Midnight Basketball is a summer program in which the YMCA has partnered with DPD to organize pick-up basketball games for local teenagers. Targeting Forest Meadow Junior High and Lake Highlands High School, this program provides a safe place to play basketball, eat dinner, and build positive relationships with police officers and other adults.
Officer Lavel Sheppard is the lead officer of the group that provides security, coaching, and mentorship for the teens who attend the events. Sheppard is an athletic looking middle-aged man with a quick smile and eyes that reveal wisdom earned working beats in uniform. He is with DPD’s Youth Outreach Unit and the Police Athletic Association, whose goal is to build relationships with the community through the youth and sports. “We want to bridge the gap between the community and the officers,” he says.
On this Tuesday night, the smells of donated Papa John’s Pizza and 30 sweaty teenagers mingle in the noisy and brightly lit gymnasium. This is the last Midnight Basketball of the summer, and a tournament has been organized as a culminating event. There is a competitive but friendly vibe, without the outbursts one might see at a normal pick-up game. Officers and teenagers exchange friendly trash talk, revealing a jovial familiarity that comes with time spent bonding through competition.
“It is events like these that crystallize the mindset in the community that what we are doing here is the real work of what law enforcement should be,” Sheppard says in between games. “They don’t call me Officer Sheppard, they just call me coach.”
Taylen Drake, who will be a 10th grader at Lake Highlands High School, has been at every session of Midnight Basketball. Drake is a slim, athletic student, who jokes with his buddies and the officers in between games. “It is fun to be a part of the program. Everyone knows me here, and I like to challenge other people.” Sheppard echoes the sentiment about being known in a place, “We want to let them know that it’s ok to be a kid.”
Too often, African American youth and the police are framed as enemies, but the relationships built on programs like these help each side humanize the opposition. “At times,” says Sheppard, “all they see is the badge, the uniform, the profession.” The hope for Midnight Basketball is that the positive and formative interactions between the young basketball players and the officers help to change that perception.
“We want the kids to know that they are supported by the YMCA, the community, and the police officers,” says Clint Elliot, Executive Director of the Lake Highlands Family YMCA. “We hope the program can help reduce the tension between the police and the African American Community.”
As the night progresses, the teams play game after game with seemingly endless pizza-fueled energy. With some players who look like grown men and others who still have room to grow, it is a mixed but competitive environment, with no one backing down or giving up.
In addition to basketball and pizza, a guest speaker attends each meeting to share a message of discipline, commitment, and maturity. Speakers have included State Representative Jason Villalba, local pastors, police officers, and the head basketball coach at Lake Highlands High School. Burson Holman, who is on the board at the YMCA, has been a key volunteer for the program. “The emphasis is that they are loved by the community, by the YMCA, and by their creator. The guys can see familiar face and feel comfortable, and build relationships. It says a lot about the heart of the YMCA, giving this little bit extra.”
After the shootings of the Dallas Officers, Midnight Basketball hosted a forum before the games where the youth and officers could share their experiences and feelings about the violence toward and by police. “It was a chance for each side to express their feelings about what happened, develop relationships, and both sides were able to share,” says Elliot. “It was eye opening. It is difficult to generalize about police when you put a face to what is happening.”
As the evening ends, jerseys and medals are passed out to the winning teams, and the last of the pizza is devoured. Officers and teenagers shake hands, give hugs, and make promises to see each other soon. Dallas has lately been characterized as a place where, despite recent violence, the community and the police have empathy for the other side while still being passionate about their own perspective.
Midnight Basketball seems to embody and encourage this positive, yet peaceful dialogue. “The YMCA has given us a platform to let the community see us in a different light, and have open dialogue,” Sheppard says. “When the kids see my car in the neighborhoods, they come up to it hang out, and ask questions, not the other way around. They are running towards us, not away.”
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