For kids, summer is a time to play outside. But in some parts of Chicago, parents say it’s just not safe.
Chicago Public Schools let out for summer a little over two weeks ago. And already, 26 school-aged children have been shot, according to published reports. Almost all of those shootings happened outdoors on the city’s South and West Sides.
But last week, Hamilton Park was packed for Opening Day of the Englewood Police Youth Baseball program. More than 100 kids, ages nine to 12, signed up to play in the league’s second season.
There’s often tension between officers and residents in high-crime areas like this one. In fact, in its assessment of the Chicago Police Department, the mayor’s Police Accountability Task Force said that the relationship between police and youth, particularly youth of color, is “antagonistic, to say the least.”
It’s Eric Washington’s job to change that — he’s the department’s deputy chief of community policing. Washington has been with the department almost 30 years, working in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. He sees the baseball program as an opportunity for good first impressions.
“One of the things, I think, every police officer in the world hates to hear is, you’re walking down the street — (you see a) kid, a little mischievous and everything else — and parent sees the police officer and says, ‘If you don’t act good I’m going (to have) that police officer lock you up,’ ” he said.
Parents should want their kids to turn to an officer if they’re in trouble, Washington said, because it’s the police’s job to keep them safe. He’s hoping the baseball league will help build trust between officers and the communities they serve.
Normally, Cornelius Morgan doesn’t let her grandkids play outside, just in front of her house, but only because it’s fenced in. The baseball games are a chance for the kids to be out, because their coaches are off-duty 7th District officers, and other on-duty cops are working security.
Morgan says parents need to stop being scared and take advantage of the police presence.
“Get the kids to enjoy themselves inside the park, you’ve got the police here watching them,” she said. “Let kids be kids again.”
Morgan set up a chair alongside a couple of girlfriends next to the field where her grandson, Princeton, was playing. She stomped her feet as he stepped up to bat; and wouldn’t you know, he hit a home run as his grandmother and her friends screamed, “GO! GO! GO!” while he circled the bases.
Some other grandmothers at the games said they’ve noticed a change in kids’ relationship with police.
Janet Moore has two grandsons playing this year; one’s eight and the other’s 11. She said she’s already noticed a change in their attitude. She says one of her boys now waves at every cop he passes.
Officer Francisco Lovano, who was on duty, watched the games from his post near the parking lot. He says sports are what kept him out of trouble as a kid.
“I came from a rough neighborhood. I played pee wee, it kept me occupied and off the streets,” Lovano said.
He said he had some friends that ended up getting into gangs, but he stayed on teams.
The Englewood program has been so successful, the police department is launching another league this summer in North Lawndale.