Police, youth build community through Saturday Morning Hoops

New Orleans police officers Nahlisha Smith and Roderic Carey participated in RISE’s Saturday Morning Hoops program in January and February 2017 in New Orleans. With them are RISE staff members Andrew Mac Intosh and Kim Miller.

July 6, 2017

By Bryan Matecun

NEW ORLEANS – New Orleans police officers Nahlisha Smith and Roderic Carey wanted to make an impact on students through the RISE Saturday Morning Hoops program in the same way police officers did for them when they were young.

Smith knew she wanted to grow up to be a police officer when she was in sixth grade because of the interactions she had with officers who visited her school. She had a positive perception of the police when she was young, but she understands that some of today’s students don’t feel the same way.

“Kids only really get to see us when we have to resolve issues that they couldn’t,” Smith said. “If you look at that and how we’re portrayed on social media and in the media, you can understand why many kids have a negative perception of the police.”

That’s why she volunteered to participate in the six-week program despite not having much sports experience.

“I didn’t play sports growing up,” Smith said. “But I always want to go out in the community and make a difference, so this was right in my wheelhouse.”

Saturday Morning Hoops was a partnership in January and February 2017 between RISE and the NBA, New Orleans Pelicans, New Orleans Police Department, New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC) and Up2Us Sports to bring local youth and law enforcement together. The program featured a combination of on-court basketball programming and hands-on learning developed by RISE focused on leadership, conflict resolution, diversity and identity. A similar 10-week program, Building Bridges Through Basketball, launched in June 2017 in Chicago.

Carey was also part of a program with police officers starting when he was 10 years old. His positive experiences with the police made him want to be a police officer at a young age, just like Smith. In turn, he wanted to provide those same kind of experiences through Saturday Morning Hoops.

“With the issues going on between the public and the police, I wanted the kids to see police in a different light,” Carey said. “And as the basketball guy in the department, they reached out to me specifically to get a couple of guys who played basketball to volunteer.”

Carey, a former high school basketball player, witnessed firsthand growing up how much of a positive impact sports can have on a student’s life.

“I was a gym rat,” Carey said. “Sports were an important part of my life growing up. They kept me out of a lot of trouble at that time.”

Saturday Morning Hoops gave Carey the opportunity to meet students who are as passionate about sports as he is. The basketball games and conversations about sports helped build trust between students and police officers.

“Playing basketball gave kids from different backgrounds and cultures a common item to bond over with each other and with the officers,” Carey said. “But basketball is the easy part.”

The hard part comes in the form of addressing the tension that sometimes exists between police officers and members of the community. Once the officers and students were able to form a bond through basketball, it became easier for them to discuss more serious issues and work toward solutions.

“The students learned about conflict resolution, implicit biases and the impact of social media,” Smith said. “Conflict resolution was my favorite topic because it gave the students information on how to handle dangerous situations. I was able to engage with the kids and see their point of view on what police officers can do to improve.”

And the kids kept coming back, week after week.

“One group of kids drove 45 minutes every Saturday to take part in the program,” Carey said. “The number of kids who showed up on a consistent basis surprised me. The basketball drew them in, but their willingness to learn impressed me.”

Carey and Smith hope the program will show students that police officers are approachable.

“One student gave me a hug after the program and said he won’t be afraid to shake my hand if he sees me in the community,” Smith said. “I told the kids not to be afraid to introduce yourself. We’re human, too.”

Carey said he already has seen a change in his interactions with students from the program.

“I have seen so many kids around who recognize me from Saturday Morning Hoops,” Carey said. “They’ll ask me how I’m doing. I tell them to feel free to give me a call. I’m always available for conversation.”

Bryan Matecun is a summer 2017 intern for communications and marketing in RISE’s Midwest office in Detroit.