LEON BIBB: In a Cleveland neighborhood, there was community policing before it carried the name

When cops umpired kids' baseball games

CLEVELAND - Across the country, there is much talk about the need for community policing. Certainly, police departments are pushing themselves to be more community-minded because relationships between citizens and police officers can sometimes be tenuous. 

When I was a youngster in 1960s Cleveland, my boyhood friends and I often talked the cops into fun-filled moments of community policing although neither the cops nor we realized what we were actually doing.

But it was community policing which revolved around neighborhood baseball games among us kids.  

Throughout the country, police departments, city halls, and citizens groups are discussing concepts and ideas of to find positive lines of communication between cops and community. Community policing is a strategy or policy which focuses on police building ties and working closely with members of the community.

Decades ago, during some of our baseball games in the schoolyard across the street from where I lived, we boys would choose sides and play baseball. During the mornings, our scheduled baseball games under the Cleveland Baseball Federation would be supervised at the city's Gordon Park sandlot baseball diamonds.

But during the afternoon when we could put on pickup baseball games using a rubber ball instead of the regulation baseball, we would mark off the bases with chalk on the asphalt schoolyard. Often, Cleveland police officers would drive by, look through the fence surrounding the school yard, and then turn in their squad car. I can remember two police officers getting out of the car to take a break from their patrols.

They would always keep the car motor running and the police radio would continue its squawk to which the officers kept their ears attuned. We would talk them into spending a couple of innings with us.

Glenville: Leon Bibb's childhood neighborhood

"Can you umpire some for us," we boys would ask. The officers usually said they could. Sometimes they would offer advice on how to better play the game. The time with the police in our school yard also gave us boys a chance to sit on the fenders of their car or peer through the window at the radio.

We never ran away when the police officers turned into the schoolyard.  Of course, we were never doing anything for which we thought we needed to run.  After a few of these community policing baseball game sessions, we learned their badge numbers and the numbers on their cars.  The cops learned our names. At the same time, we learned about their lives and their jobs. We were inquisitive kids who expressed interest in cops, and firefighters, and uniformed people whose lives were filled with action.

At the time when I was a boy not yet old enough to have a driver's license, I didn't give much thought to our relationship with the cops. It was just part of our lives. But in recent years, my mind has gone back to those years.  They were idyllic in that those days are filled with positive memories of a good childhood in the city of Cleveland.

I have written much of the violence of today which peppers the old neighborhood in which I grew up. It saddens me there has been so much gunfire and death on Cleveland streets; even deaths of teenagers who should be playing sports of some kind as opposed to being involved in gangs. My job as a television newscaster almost daily involves my reports of shootings, fights, and other troubles involving teenagers and young adults.

In my childhood, had no gang. I did belong to a group of youth. We played baseball in the playground or on the city sandlots. We carried no guns. We carried baseball gloves. 

Most differences we had could be settled by an umpire who had watched the play and called us safe or out at first, second, or third base. Whatever the call, in reality, we were all safe at home.

On our pickup games in the playground, it was the umpire who settled our baseball disputes. Sometimes, it was a Cleveland police officer. 

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I realize the cops of today run from one emergency to the next. Cars of black and white with the word "POLICE" written on their sides run through the streets, often with their blue roof lights blinking and their sirens crying. There are experts working to lessen the instances of crime. Those experts are better schooled than I on how to do that.  I will leave the details to the experts of how to fight crime yet strengthen the relationships between police and citizens.  

During these times, decades removed from the years of by childhood, government officials, citizens, and police are talking openly about the need for more community policing.

In Cleveland, the efforts are underway to make for better relations between police and the communities. I believe we are making inroads. During the 2016 Republican National Committee convention in Cleveland, strong community policing earned the entire nation's attention.

As one journalist from Boston had written, he came to Cleveland expecting a riot because of the tense situation in politics and the expected large numbers of protestors who would demonstrate against a variety of issues in the nation.  Instead, he found something else. He wrote he had expected "a riot," Instead he found "a block part."

Much can be attributed to the way Cleveland police officers and the hundreds of others who were brought to Cleveland as security for the convention handled situations. Cleveland officers were able to easily handle the few disturbances by being open to the people who demonstrated, allowing them their Constitutional rights to do so.

Other communities have since been in touch with Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams about how he and his officers handled themselves in situations which could have gotten very tense while at the same time enforcing the law. 

Community policing and how it is carried out can diffuse and otherwise troubling situation. But cops and citizens have to know each other. The cops in the neighborhood of my youth learned our names and we baseball-playing boys learned theirs.  hat marked the beginning of a relationship which was fostered even more on an asphalt  schoolyard baseball diamond outline in chalk.

Maybe if the neighborhood kids could grab a ball and a bat and hit a few pitches through a makeshift infield could be a beginning.  Maybe if the cops could take notice and stop by to umpire an inning or two could help in the effort for better relations. 

I like to think that might be a good idea or at least a good beginning.

Maybe the cops and the community need someone to do what baseball umpires do.  Shout, "Play ball!"

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