The lights on Mott Haven High School’s football field were illuminated Tuesday night as a group of NYPD officers and teenagers wearing blue and red flags squared off for the borough title in the Police Athletic Leagues Cops & Kids Bronx championship flag football game.
As the Metro North and MTA trains rumbled in the distance, NYPD explorers presented the colors, the national anthem was sung and a chaplain said a prayer as players took a knee before the game.
In a time with increased scrutiny on the relationship between police officers and young people in lower-income and communities of color, the symbolism of officers and Bronx teens teaming up wasn’t lost on both the officers and the players.
“This is the first year we’ve participated as a precinct,” said Inspector Nilda Hoffman of the 52 Precinct, who cheered on the combined and undefeated 52 and 50 Precinct teams from the sidelines. “I think it’s wonderful to see my cops come out here and do this with the kids. Sometimes as cops we only see the negative with the children, because that’s what we encounter, when anyone calls 911, usually it’s for a bad reason. This way, they see kids out there that we never encounter.”
The PAL program isn't anything new, but the emphasis on the big championship game is, said Officer Victor Matos, who works in the Community Affairs Youth Services and organized the game. Matos said he wanted all 140 kids and 30 cops in the Bronx program to feel they were part of something bigger, and the opportunity to connect in the wake of heightened police and community relations.
“My friends thinks cops aren’t human,” said Victor Duran, 15, who plays with the 43 Precinct team.
Duran, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, wasn’t playing in the Tuesday night game but was cheering on his 43 Precinct teammates. This was his first year playing in the league.
“It’s changed me a lot, I used to be mad shy,” Duran said. “I didn’t talk to nobody, but now I got the power to do it.”
Duran said he now looks at police officers he sees on the street differently because of the positive interaction he’s had playing football with them. “Kids at school don’t have the same perception, they think they’re like mad, bad, terrible persons.”
Brenda Brito, a campus police officer at Bronx Community College, said her son, Jeremiah, has a different perspective than many of his peers because she’s in law enforcement.
“This is his first year and he’s having fun,” Brito said. “ He has not missed one day and he’s met a lot of new people.”
“I think the kids think it’s pretty cool to be able to play with the cops and see we’re just like them,” said Matos. The event also included a DJ, crew of junior reporters and a appearance in the stands from former NY Jets cornerback Bobby Jackson. “And it helps the cops remember they were young like them before."
[The 50/52 Precinct won in double overtime and will play in the borough championships on Dec. 5.]