Somehow even in winning the police managed to lose again last week. Specifically, the losers were the Cincinnati Police officers who at the very last minute told organizers of a Nov. 19 "Cincinnati Police vs. Da Streetz" basketball game they'd decided not to play.
The young African-American men who pulled on the specially designed police jerseys in their place ended up winning anyway, 74-72.
So the Cincinnati Police Department (CPD), once so bad at police-community relations that three years ago the U.S. Justice Department had to step in and mandate they play nice -- through a memorandum of agreement mandating reform -- again proved the community's point.
It wasn't at all what the event's organizers were aiming for.
"We're just trying to show everybody police are human, too," said co-organizer Stan Newell. "They're not all trying to shoot and kill, and everybody on the streets ain't bad."
'All for it'
Newell watched the young men of Da Streetz team warm up as a mixed crowd of about 50 spectators waited in the Friar's Club gym for the police to show. The basketball players running drills were all over 21 and hailed from Avondale, Madisonville, downtown, Lincoln Heights, Bond Hill and other neighborhoods, Newell said.
"I actually grew up with all these guys," he said. "I called them up for a favor."
He was aware there had already been some concern.
"The police thought it was gonna be a violent game because of the streets, so they tried to pull out on us," Newell said.
In the end they succeeded in pulling out but forgot to tell the organizers.
But it's not like the police hadn't heard of Avondale native Newell and his best friend Lawrence Jones, co-founders of Young Entrepreneurs (YEP) Inc. Earlier this year they organized a basketball game that pitted Avondale against Bond Hill after a series of aggressions between the two neighborhoods coalesced into shootings that the media dubbed gang-related.
That game sold out. There hasn't been a shooting between the two neighborhoods since, according to Jones and Newell.
They described YEP as a year-old mentoring and consulting program that works to reach kids others can't and connect them to school, jobs and the community at large. Right now they work with about 200 teenagers and their parents, Newell said.
"We even have some teenagers we mentor their parents," Newell said.
It's not like the police didn't know about the event.
"We talked with the police close to two months ago," Jones said. "They were all for it at that point."
Det. Scotty Johnson, president of the Sentinels, an African-American police association, signed on early and talked it up on his radio show, Jones said.
Harry Roberts, president of the Queen City Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, even called to ask to play in the game, Jones said. He directed Roberts to District 1 Sgt. Richard Antwine, who was helping the men recruit officers for the game. But as of 4:45 p.m. Nov. 19 there was no cancellation call -- and no Roberts.
Then, at the urging of another police officer, Jones said that two weeks ago he also sent a letter to Police Chief Tom Streicher, telling him about the game.
Five days before the game Johnson called Jones to say he had a commitment from just one officer.
So Jones and Newell directly approached the police officers and firefighters who play basketball at College Hill Recreation Center every Tuesday. At that point Antwine promised he had their backs and they'd have their game, Jones said.
A terse Antwine showed up Nov. 19 in a police bicycle uniform.
"There's a lot of information that wasn't disseminated correctly, so we chose not to participate," Antwine said. "It's not that we didn't want to. I'm not going to get into 'he said, she said.'
"I know all these guys out here," he said, craning his neck around the doorway to watch the young men play each other.
Antwine was tight-lipped, but the theories circulating in the gym included lack of communication, liability issues, concern over the $10 admission and intelligence reports that promised violence.
But the Friars Club holds tournaments for kids year round and is completely insured, said CEO Mike Besl, who approached Jones and Newell about using the gym.
Giving back the badge
All the talk of bad communication might be easier to buy if The Cincinnati Enquirer hadn't published a Nov. 7 preview article about the game, quoting Johnson and advertising a halftime speech by Dr. O'dell Owens, the Hamilton County Coroner. Owens didn't show either.
The one police representative who did suit up and play wasn't even a police officer. Lorenzo Toney said he works for the United States Postal Service but regularly plays Tuesday basketball with the police and firefighters. At halftime Toney said he was "very surprised" that no officers showed.
He'd also heard something about the admission and an insurance waiver.
Not one officer even showed up to watch the game, Jones said.
"You ain't gotta lie to me," he said. "We're all grown men. I can respect a 'no.' "
He pulled out of his pocket something he'd been waiting to give police: a peace of another young man's mind. Police badge 432 had been wrestled away from an officer 10 years ago.
"I was gonna give them their badge back," an agitated Jones said. "Now I'm just gonna throw it at them."
Then he calmed down and said he'd present the badge to the cops.
"I gotta do it anyway," he said. "That might be him making his peace with the police officers."
A number of community activists, many of whom were involved in the collaborative agreement on police reform, had also turned out for the game. The police passed up a prime opportunity to converse and connect, according to Iris Roley, an organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio's Cincinnati Police Reform Project. The game would have been a good implementation of community problem-oriented policing (CPOP), the model established by the collaborative agreement.
"This is what CPOP was supposed to do," Roley said. "This is what the police-community partnering center should be doing. I just think it's really bad under the spirit of the collaborative."
A woman who asked not to be named echoed the sentiment.
"The police department must have known they weren't going to show well before 3 o'clock," she said. "They should've communicated that to the kids."
Still the police got props from Newell, who teased the discouraged Da Streetz team after the final buzzer rang.
"Sweatin' for nothin'? Like they was gonna beat us anyway. You're lucky they didn't show up."
He presented one trophy to Da Streetz and another to Toney, telling him, "You're the only one who kept your promise."
"All police ain't bad," Newell told the crowd as it filtered out. "I'm gonna keep that under my belt. The ones that is, we're gonna talk to them." ©