Josh Simmons, 17, was caught by surprise when a Gulfport High School administrator called him and 24 other black students into a meeting.
“I thought, ‘Oh man. I don’t know what happened, but I’m thinking there’s 25 of us and we all didn’t do anything,” he said.
Gulfport police officials took over. Oswago Harper, the ninth-grade principal, had called them in to talk about racial tension, police shootings and animosity — not just in Gulfport, but nationwide.
Police Chief Leonard Papania told the students they’re the solution to problems and he wanted police to start some pickup basketball games in neighborhoods to improve relationships.
I really thought police officers would be like a robot, like a robocop. Not down to earth. Kind of stuck up. Arguing with you about something. But at the end of day, psssh, they’re like older cousins or something.
Josh Simmons, Gulfport High senior
Papania gave each of the students his cellphone number.
Simmons began to text the chief. He wanted more than a neighborhood pickup game. He wanted to go big.
Papania agreed. And that’s why 13 of the students will play Gulfport police officers in a free tip-off basketball game Monday night at Bert Jenkins Gymnasium. The Solution will play the Blue Crew starting at 7 p.m.
Simmons said the meeting, and getting to know some police officers, has changed the way he thinks about police.
“I really thought police officers would be like a robot, like a robocop,” he said, referring to the cybernetically enhanced sci-fi movie cop. “Not down to earth. Kind of stuck up. Arguing with you about something. But at the end of day, psssh, they’re like older cousins or something.”
Trash talk begins
Playful trash talk has started in advance of the Monday-night game. It’s game on, as Simmons and police Sgt. Tony Alves showed when they bantered back and forth at the Sun Herald this week.
Asked about his role in the game, Alves said he’s a coach/manager/player.
“A bench player,” Simmons teased.
“Oh, they’re going to get beat,” Alves replied.
Simmons said the student players, who are not on the school’s basketball team, are “setting up” the police team.
“They’re not in shape,” he said.
Replied Alves, “Once we start stealing the ball from them, and crossing them, there’s going to be a couple of broken ankles. They’re going to scream, call for help from police. It’s going to be the greatest response time in documented police history.”
Simmons and police said they’re seeing positive results already.
“It’s showed me that not all police are just going around saying, ‘He’s black. Let me shoot him,’” the teen said. “Not all cops are bad. The news is not showing the whole story when police shoot somebody. Everything’s not like it seems to be.”
He said he hopes a lot of people turn out for the game.
“It would show the community that we trust police so it would be a good choice if they trust police also,” he said.
Alves, who’s been with the department 13 years, has been working with a team of officers that meets at churches and community centers to talk about interaction with police, how to respond to police and ways to improve relationships. A big part of achieving that will be getting to know teenagers and gaining their trust, he said.
It’s a great idea Josh came up with. We’re using this tip-off event as a launching pad for the Blue Crew to interact more with youths. You know ‘blue’ means police. ‘Crew’ is an acronym for creating relationships everywhere.
Gulfport police Sgt. Tony Alves
“It’s a great idea Josh came up with,” Alves said. “We’re using this tip-off event as a launching pad for the Blue Crew to interact more with youths. You know ‘blue’ means police. ‘Crew’ is an acronym for creating relationships everywhere.”
Police officials plan to allow officers to start pickup basketball games in neighborhoods as their time between calls permits. And flag football games and video games. Even “a guy’s night out at the bowling alley,” he said.
Allowing police to play a pickup game in neighborhoods could encourage parents or others to come out, get to know police and make them feel comfortable sharing any concerns, Sgt. Joshua Bromen said.
“Our top priority is to protect the people and property of Gulfport.” he said. “If we can lay the foundation of mutual respect with these students, we will all benefit. And with the basketball game, we can feel normal. We don’t have to wear a gun or a vest to make a difference.”
Simmons already has plans after graduation. He wants to study automotive engineering and collision repair at Universal Technical Institute and California State.
“I’d like to design cars and fix them,” he said.