October 2019 Cover Story: Operation Conversation

The Phoenix Police Department uses sports, education, activities and events to help cops and kids develop a positive relationship.

Talking with members of the Phoenix Police Department, it’s clear the officers have seen a lot. Citizens who cycle back to prison again and again. Teenagers who run at the sight of a patrol car. Systemic issues and news stories that pit kids against cops.

Trust is a commodity in short supply. Yet trust is critical for law enforcement to fight crime and resolve situations in a way that helps community members. And it’s required to build staff morale and recruit candidates who reflect the Valley’s values and demographics.

The Phoenix PD is fighting the trust deficit by building strong relationships — particularly with youth — through creative programs that let officers step outside their usual roles and connect with the community in a positive way.

Officer Carl Wunsch is an 18-year veteran of the force who grew up playing basketball. So when the Police Activities League, or “PAL” program, asked him to mentor Phoenix youth, he knew the sport would offer an ideal approach.

A former high school and college player, he also knew the obstacles many talented kids face. “Every teenager wants to play club basketball. They want the competition, recognition and visibility you can get. But the problem is the affordability,” he said.

Club programs can run thousands of dollars a year, plus entry fees for tournaments and money for uniforms, training camps and travel. “Most kids can’t afford that, so I thought there was an opportunity to provide something similar,” he said.

Wunsch created a PAL basketball team last March that, from the jump, has taken the Valley by storm. In its short life, the team which Wunsch coaches has already racked up seven championships, two second-place finishes and become a fan favorite during tournament play.

His players don’t pay a monthly fee and they borrow uniforms. They’re asked to pay their share of tournament fees, but even then Wunsch often helps. “I charge no more than $40 a person, but most of the kids can barely scrape that together,” he said. So Wunsch frequently finds odd jobs for the player to earn the money.

Along the way, the teens learn valuable lessons. “They’re learning how to deal with adversity, success, stress and all the different things sports can teach them,” Wunsch said.

Sgt. Dave Hosfield, who supervises the Police Activities League, proudly recounts how the team recently dealt with a challenging game. “Some of the kids had a hard time getting there, so they had to go on the court with four players versus five,” he said. “They ended up beating the other team by nine points.”

Cops aren’t the only ones taking notice. Coaches from local junior colleges have started to seek out and offer scholarships to PAL players, and one 6’7” athlete is now under contract in an NBA program that develops players for the draft. “Giving them that exposure means opportunities,” Wunsch said.

It also means a shift in outlook. “I have kids that play for us that aren’t the biggest fans of police or the justice system,” Wunsch said. But after spending time with their coach, who often spends hours a day picking up and driving players to practice, the kids’ perspectives change. “They see that cops aren’t that bad,” Wunsch said.

But what if police could develop positive relationships even more preemptively, while kids are still young? That’s the call Officer Mary Roestenberg tries to answer. After getting numerous inquiries from the community about a safe place to go trick-or-treating, she helped develop an annual Halloween festival that draws about 1,500 people to the Mountain View precinct. “Families come, and kids are dressed in costume,” she said. “We do a trunk-or-treat and have a pumpkin patch, petting zoo, movie area, ice cream truck and DJ. Everything is free, and the food is provided.”

When she isn’t making friends with little ghouls and goblins, Roestenberg is making inroads with middle-school kids. “I identified that, at this impactful stage, you either lose them or you bring them on board,” she said.

Twice a year, Roestenberg attempts to do the latter by giving 25 kids an in-depth look at law enforcement via the Youth Police Experience program. Over the course of a week, youths go on field trips to the police academy, watch the dive team do search and rescue, see a helicopter from the air unit perform a takeoff and landing, and meet members of the bomb squad, SWAT team and — the perennial favorite — the K9 unit.

“Some of the kids are amazed at what there is to do in law enforcement,” Roestenberg said. “We focus on teamwork and building relationships, not just with the kids in class but with officers as well.”

Older kids interested in law-enforcement careers can take part in the Cadet program, which provides youths between 14 and 21 opportunities for community service and training. “We do about 5,000 hours of community service with them, including things like memorials, funerals and helping with the PPD Museum and Special Olympics,” said Officer Jamie Brooks, one of three officers who work with the program.

In addition, the youths receive academic and hands-on training on everything from handcuffing to defensive tactics to crime-scene investigation. Meanwhile, the Cadet honor guard takes part in events like Diamondbacks games, and the translation squad assists with court-based translation. “They do all this for free in exchange for the education, opportunity and camaraderie that we have within the program,” Brooks said.

Plus, with their specialized training and knowledge of police work, the youths emerge with solid skills when they apply for jobs, said Officer David Barrios, who works with the Cadet program. “Within the four years I’ve been here, we’ve had at least four people go to the United States Marine Corps, four go to the United States Army, and two go to the National Guard. One went to the Coast Guard and somewhere between eight and 10 of our cadets became a city employee within the police department. And we now have two that are currently in the police academy,” he said.

Studies show that intervention programs like these help prevent absenteeism at school and reduce crime in the community. “Youth having too much time on their hands and not enough parental supervision is not a good recipe. It’s a sidestep for us to go in there and recruit them,” said Sgt. Hosfield. “We can lower our crime rates and make our communities safer by teaching kids in those crucial years that the choices they’re making now can affect them for the rest of their lives.”

Speaking of choices, a critical incident led Officer Jen Kuleff to make a personal decision to give back that has helped hundreds of girls in the community. During her first year on the job, Kuleff was shot. “During that incident, I was lying on the ground and I made a deal with God,” she said.

If she lived, she vowed to do something good, which is how Hoops for Hope came to be.

A former college basketball player, Kuleff uses the sport to assist at-risk girls throughout the Valley. In this year-round program, female police officers serve as mentors to help girls make it through personal challenges while guiding them on a path to success.

Lt. Barbara Alexander, who oversees the youth programs, says they have helped heal historic tensions with police. “Some of these young people would run from us in the past, whereas now they’re developing rapport, so if they do have a problem, they know they can go directly to that police officer,” she said. “It doesn’t just affect the individual; it affects their families, and how they interact with police.”

So much so that each spring officers are invited to graduation ceremonies and parties. “Some of these kids were going to alternative schools with an ankle bracelet on when we first started these programs, and here they are asking the officers to be there when they get their diploma,” Hosfield said.

That’s one thing the officers stress to the cadets — that not a lot separates them from the kids. “We all come from diverse backgrounds. A lot of us come from broken families, tragedies, immigrant parents,” Barrios said. “We ask, ‘Why can’t you be the next chief of police? Because if I’m a police officer, man, anybody can do that.’”

Officer Doug Barrow has the most tenure with the Cadet program, having worked with it for 13 years. He’ll be retiring next year and looks back on his experience with something verging on awe. “There are multiple success stories over the years but I was thinking, what if there was only one? And if there was only one, think about that positive ripple effect that that one changed life made on all of the other lives that they come in contact with. Multiply that by all those other success stories,” he said.

So while societal problems, inequities and negative news stories unfortunately aren’t going away any time soon, maybe programs like these can help cops and kids discover new ways of relating. And perhaps the pipeline running from kids in the Experience program to youths in PAL to teen Cadets might be part of a bigger, lasting solution. “We’re feeding these positively reinforced young adults into the police department,” Barrow said. “That’s what we need. We need those positive attitudes and those next role models to carry on the culture we have.”

Backing the Blue

The Phoenix Police Foundation supports the Phoenix PD by helping to meet capital needs, provide employee recognition and offer financial assistance in crisis situations.“Officers are out doing a fantastic job every day, and they have to do a lot with very little,” said Tim Thomas, president of the foundation. “So through private funding and the foundation, we can provide opportunities.”

Whether it’s helping Cadets travel to competitions, providing meals to PAL and Hoops for Hope players during basketball tournaments or purchasing clay so kids in the Experience program can make a forensic ear, the foundation steps in to provide the funds these programs need to be successful.

Beyond this, the foundation provides safety equipment such as ballistic shields and tourniquet holders to keep officers safe. And when tragedy strikes, such as when an officer was killed in the line of duty this year, the foundation provides a vetted means for people to donate to, knowing the money will go to the officer’s family.

            To learn more, go to phxpolicefoundation.org.

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