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Police work to strengthen community relations with flag football game

Police work to strengthen community relations with flag football game
Dominic Nell (holding the football) and Genard Barr (to the right, standing) speak to community team members before the second flag football against police at Frederick Douglass High School Saturday. (Jessica Anderson)

It was halftime, and the cops were in the lead.

Genard Barr, coach of the community team in the second annual flag football game against city police Saturday, gave his players some advice.

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"They can't keep up with you. They can't catch you on foot," he said to laughs on the field at Frederick Douglass High School.

The "police chasing neighborhood guys" narrative is known to many of the young black men on the team, most of whom were from West Baltimore, said Dominic Nell, who helped recruit team members. But he said Saturday's game was one step in "planting the seeds" for more positive police and community relations in Baltimore.

Nell, who said he has friends in the community who distrust officers, as well as friends in law enforcement, said, "I just know we had to do something different." So Nell and Barr found players for a community team to play against city officers in a friendly game of flag football.

Baltimore police Capt. Jeffrey Shorter, who used to work in the community collaboration unit and now heads the Northeast District, worked with them to create the "Unity Bowl" as another way to foster police and community relationships.

"Without faith and trust, you won't have respect" in the community, he said.

The inaugural game, held in November 2015, came just months after rioting broke out in the city after the death of Freddie Gray. Gray, a 25-year-old black man, suffered a severe spinal injury in the back of a police van after his arrest and died a week later. Six police officers involved in his arrest and transport were criminally charged with offenses ranging from misconduct in office to murder. The officers were either acquitted or prosecutors dropped the charges against them.

Since the unrest, Shorter said, he has seen community relationships improve.

"The tension isn't as high. There's a long way to go, but you have to start somewhere," Shorter said.

The department has faced additional scrutiny after Department of Justice officials issued a report in August that found Baltimore police routinely violated the civil and constitutional rights of the city's residents.

Many negative perceptions that residents have of the department were evident Friday when some bystanders yelled at Police Commissioner Kevin Davis as he spoke to reporters after a police-involved shooting in Waverly. Two police officers shot and critically injured a man they said was armed with two knives and threatening passers-by. Some residents who walked up to the police tape surrounding the scene expressed frustration, accusing the officers of excessive force.

On Saturday, Davis, who watched the game from the sidelines, said that while those negative views of police persist, "that doesn't mean that we should give up." He said he hoped to see more events to get police officers and community members together for positive interactions.

During a brief pregame huddle on the field, Davis shook the hands of Barr and Nell, and told them, "I can't thank you guys enough."

The officers wore white and the community wore black T-shirts bearing the slogan "One City One Purpose."

In the week leading up to the game, Western District Officer Sufian Hassan said he was cajoled into playing by people in the neighborhood. He said he sees many of the players on the opposing team while walking his regular beat along Pennsylvania Avenue, which was the epicenter of the rioting.

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"There was trash-talking to me all week," he said with a smile before jogging back onto the field.

While the department sees the game as an opportunity for community members to have positive experiences with officers, Daniel Wilson, 23, said he hoped the experience would also change how some officers look at people in the community.

Wilson, who lives in Park Heights, said he's been stopped for no reason, thrown to the ground and harassed by officers.

"They just do it random. That's the reality," he said. "It really makes you want to give up. But that's why I am out here today."

Wilson said he hopes the next time officers on the field see him, they treat him with respect and say, "Oh, he's a good guy."

He also hopes for a better future for his 2-year-old son. "I'm here for the community. I hope this works," he said.

While the full impact of the game on community relations remains to be seen, Barr's halftime pep talk appeared to have made an impact. The community team came back for the win, 16-15.

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